So I didn't go to Spokane, a decision I regretted around 10:10 p.m. Saturday night. I know the exact time because I decided to keep a running diary during the game. I kicked it with Taylor, pizza and pistachios as the big game unfolded.
Let's take a look back at my thoughts throughout the night…
9:09 – Time to get this thing started. Or not. Arizona and Clemson are dragging their feet, still playing and setting back the ESPN programming. With less than a minute to go in a Wildcats win, ESPN cuts to Spokane and Brandon Paul stretching out…
Taylor says: "It's always Brandon Paul and the Illini," talking about how the announcers introduce the team.
Yeah, I think. Yeah, it is. Tonight may need to be Brandon Paul and the Illini, like a headlining singer and his talented musician background backdrop.
9:11 – And now we're in Spokane for good. Stephen Bardo is manning color commentating duties tonight. Lucky him, covering his former school. Can't wait for the "Look at these pictures of Stephen Bardo at Illinois in 1989" segment.
He points out the Illini are playing with a lot of confidence, led by Paul and D.J. Richardson. He calls Gonzaga a "tough, determined club." They must have a lot of white dudes. Kidding!
9:19 – Well… Less than three minutes into the game and Gonzaga is up 12-3. The Zags defense, primarily a matchup 2-3 zone with other looks sprinkled in, has given the Illini trouble so far. No penetration whatsoever from Illinois – a Brandon Paul 3 is the only make. This is a "popped in the mouth" moment. Maybe Joe Bertrand will come off the bench and create some work in the paint. Need somebody to get in the lane and create.
Groce had to take a timeout. Taylor said: "Groce looks pissed."
Yeah, I think. Yeah, he is. He's so animated. I want to make a Hanna-Barbera joke here. It's too early tough. Maybe I'll go with Pixar for all of you young cats that don't know who Yogi the Bear is.
9:22 – Tough break for the Illini on a fast break. D.J. Richardson got a steal, drove the court and missed a layup. A put-back attempt got stuck between the backboard and the hoop, sitting still on the rim. It wasn't wedged – just sitting there. What's that portion of the rim called anyway? Purgatory? Second-base on prom night? Stealers Wheel? Beats me. Bardo says: "You don't see that very often."
No, I think. No, you don't. Let's hope this isn't an omen.
9:27 - John Stockton in the house! Is it just me or has Stockton not aged since 1994?
9:28 – John Stockton in the house! ESPN cuts to him again after his son hits a layup. Are we going to see Stockton every time son David (who should be wearing purple short shorts he looks so much like daddy)?
9:29 – Joseph Bertrand: one minute played, three points scored. Bertrand comes off the bench and immediately hits a three. Dude's a jumpstart with a fade.
9:30 – It's 20-15 as we head into a commercial break. Credit the Illini for withstanding the initial punch. Three of their six makes are 3-point shots. And Paul already has seven points, two steals and two assists. So far it's Brandon Paul and the Illini. The band needs him to keep singing big.
9:35 - Adam Morrison in the house! Bardo: "This is the first game since graduation since he's come back." We've got Johnny Stockton, Morrison and Dan Dickau here – full-on reunion. And they're liking what they see – it's 28-18, Bulldogs lead.
9:39 – Paul takes a 3 I didn't like. It was deep, and I internally said, "What?" Then it went in. 31-23
9:39 – Déjà vu – Paul takes a 3 I didn't like. He was trying to get fouled, drew contact and just threw it up. Of course the whistle didn't blow. Internally I said, "What?" Then it banked in. He now has 14 points. The rest of the team has 12 points. So technically, Gonzaga is winning with 33 points. Paul is in second. And the Illini-not-named-Paul, a collective effort, is in third. This should be fun to track.
9:43 – During a timeout, Taylor says: "Coach Ford is getting all in Nnanna's face." She follows that with: "Coach Walker's bald head is so shiny." I can only agree with these assessments.
9:47 – Groce gets animated after an offensive foul called on Tyler Griffey. When I say animated, I mean – don't-get-an-ulcer-bro-it's-still-early-December-style animation. Bardo: "He plays checkers like that. He works out like that." I'd like to see Groce playing checkers like that – "KING ME!"
9:49 – For the record, my seventh grade Social Studies teacher was named Gary Bell. Tonight for the Zags, Gary Bell has five points.
9:51 – We go to break after a nasty block by Paul – wait, he plays defense, too? This album is well rounded. And don't look now, but Illinois trails by two. Resilient bunch, this team. Gonzaga is shooting 63 percent from the floor, yet it only leads 35-33. Quite a push by Paul, aided by Abrams and Bertrand, to get back in the game.
9:55 - And two free throws by Paul ties the game at 35. Just looked on nbadraft.net to see where Paul is listed for next year's draft. He's currently projected to go in the second round, No. 43 to the Dallas Mavericks. That's a steal!
10:02 – Richardson puts it on the deck and scores at the rim. He's mostly one-dimensional with all the 3s, but he has gotten better at attacking the goal. I'm only saying that because I wrote a story about him doing this before the season started. Over 75 percent of his shots this year are from downtown. It sounded good, anyway.
10:02 - Mike Shaw is in, much to the surprise of Taylor. We're seeing some early foul trouble mounting.
10:03 – My old boss from Georgia called. He likes this Illinois team, but says the guards make poor decisions at times. "What's with the one-handed passes?" he asks. "They know how to score though." He played college ball (small-time as it was), so I always like to hear his take.
10:08 – Tyler Griffey sighting! He is in fact alive. His clutchness came to life – he hit a jumper to end the half to tie the score at 41. What a game…
10:10 – "Yeah I should have gone out there." – this guy.
10:15 – So it's halftime. Taylor is hitting the pizza. I'm crunching some important stats here. Like: Gonzaga 41, Illini-not-named-Paul 23, Paul 18. Paul played out of his mind in the first half, hitting 5-of-9 shots and adding three steals, two steals and two assists.
A few other numbers: Gonzaga won the rebounding battle 14-8, but the Illini forced 13 turnovers and had only six.
The first five minutes were tough, but Illinois withstood the body blows. Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez are set to do battle in the ring later. I'm sure there's more boxing analogies to make here.
10:27 – The second half is underway, and Illinois leads for the first time. A Myke Henry 3 gives the Illini a 44-43 lead. Foul trouble is a funny beast. It's causes such anxiety – or opportunity. I could type some deep statement about this, but this game is moving at a furious pace.
10:30 - Stephen Bardo in 1989!!!!!!!!!!!!
10:31 – The Illini now have a five point lead. Abrams is vicious when he's in attack mode. He's got 10 points – all of which came from drives to the basket. Defensively, the team is struggling in transition. Actually, the team is struggling defensively in general. But offensively, everything is golden at the moment.
10:36 – Myke Henry!!!! Another 3 makes it 59-53 with 15:28 left to play. Henry has come on strong with Griffey on the bench with three fouls. He has six points, hitting two big 3s here in the second half.
10:41 – Karnowksi – Gonzaga's 7-footer freshman -- looks like a character from The Office or something. How is this dude still taking prerequisites? He looks like a guy who should be mulling a dissertation topic.
10:43 – Foul trouble – post defense. How many times am I going to see this high-low action lead to dunks?
10:44 – Nnanna Egwu sighting… His first two points of the game makes it 63-58, Illinois leads with 13 to play. Can Nnanna stay out of foul trouble? Can he provide more scoring? Does it matter? Why do I ask questions that can't be answered? Isn't that annoying? Is it still annoying?
10:45 – Sam McLaurin picks up his fourth foul with 12:15 to play. Forget opportunity – this is anxiety-level four trouble. Egwu and Griff both have three. Could see a lot of Myke Henry down the stretch.
10:52 – Joe gets in the lane. It looks raw, but he can crossover, spin and hit that runner/one-handed shot/floater/thing against anybody. By the way, it's 65-59, Illinois leads.
10:53 - Mark Few tries to get animated. John Groce's bench conduct just laughs at the futile attempt. Now all I can think about is playing checkers against Groce and getting pissing him off when I double-jump his weak sauce strategy.
10:54 - D.J. Richardson had a quiet eight points. Quiet that is until that four-point play after being fouled on a made 3. Each game I always a fun realization: I see Richardson hit a big shot and I think, "How many points does D.J. have? 12? Really. Wow. Didn't seem like that many."
10:56 – Egwu now has four fouls. Who is left over there? Henry, Griffey and Shaw? Anybody have some Xanax? And Gonzaga is in the bonus, with nine minutes left. The Illini lead 68-59, but the nine-point margin doesn't feel commanding.
10:59 – Adam Morrison is in the house! Not as into the game now that the home team is down. And here comes the "They could probably use a little Adam Morrison from downtown right now," comment from play-by-play announcer Roxy Bernstein. So predictable.
11:02 - Two things – the lead is crumbling. It's now 68-64. Hate to be such a downer, but that's why I didn't have a good feeling a few minutes ago. It's hard to have a good feeling on the road, in foul trouble and against a team as good as Gonzaga.
11:03 – And Brandon Paul answers my doubts with a 3. I don't even like Xanax.
11:04 – And now Brandon Paul has a season-high 27. If this version of Brandon Paul and the Illini shows up on the regular in January and February, things will be jumping in Champaign. With Gonzaga switching screens, Paul is going to the rim. He's TAKING what is being provided – 3s in the context (mostly) of the offense and driving when a big ends up guarding him.
11:08 – Wow. Brandon Paul looks so happy in his ESPN team photo. Not. Guess you can't excel at everything.
11:10 – And Griffey is gone. With 3:42 remaining he fouls out. Not a good game for Tyler. He finishes with four points (0-3 from 3) and two rebounds. Gonzaga continues to get good position down low. All the scoring on the other end is exciting, but the defensive struggles are frustrating to watch.
11:14 – Abrams basket to answer on the other end. He, once again, is having an impressive second half.
11:15 – And now Egwu is gone. He's the second to hit the bench with five fouls. It will be McLaurin and Henry the rest of the way. And Sam has four fouls now. He'll have to play smart. Maybe I do like Xanax?
11:16 – Brandon Paul is playing like a superstar right now. Hits an up and under layup and gets fouled. Knocks down the free throw and Illinois leads 78-71. Paul now has 30 points. And this is beginning to feel like an Illini upset.
11:19 – With 1:52 remaining, I'll go ahead and say it – Illinois is going to win. And it's a good win.
11:21 – Seriously Brandon Paul? This is his court right now, his stage. He hits another 3 to give him 33 for the night. Paul understands how to score the basketball. Tonight's tape could make Paul some money come March. No. 43 overall pick? Please.
11:23 – Final score – Illinois 85, Gonzaga 74. What a game it was. The first five minutes weren't pretty. But Brandon Paul and the Illini didn't care. The band regrouped and tied it by halftime. They took a lead early in the second and battled foul trouble and finished the drill down the stretch. What can I say about Paul that his stat line doesn't? 35 points, four rebounds, three steals, three assists, two blocks – a tremendous all-around effort when his team needed exactly that. The defensive struggles worry me. It's what I do – I see a weakness and I think about it. But tonight's not for worrying. It's about appreciating a well-earned road victory. Manny Pacquaio just got knocked out. He'll get back up. And so will Gonzaga. But they'll remember this blow to the face for a while.