‘Miraculous pass’ saves Illini

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By Jeff LaBelle

INDIANAPOLIS – Illinois guard Calvin Brock missed a shot with 10 seconds to play in Thursday afternoon’s Big Ten Tournament contest against Penn State – a chance that almost cost his team the game.

Down by one point, his shot went off the basket and bounced off of players from both teams almost simultaneously and dropped out of bounds. The call went in favor of the Illini, giving the team one last chance.

It was a spot that many times this season has proved insurmountable, and almost one month ago against Penn State, it was. In that game, Taylor Battle iced two free throws to give his team a one-point lead, 52-51, with seven seconds left. Shaun Pruitt, though, could not convert his shot attempt in the waning seconds.

This time, a miraculous pass by Trent Meacham, and an even more unlikely basket by Chester Frazier, extended the Illini’s season into Friday’s contest against Purdue. The play sealed a one-point victory in a game that was necessary, and, according to some of the players after the game, just the first contest of what will be four by the end of the weekend.

As the Illini entered the locker room after the game, shouts of “three more games” and “another day, another day” echoed off the walls.

On the deciding possession, Frazier stood next to his team’s basket with the ball in his hands, found Meacham on the nearest baseline and rushed to grab what he expected to be the rebound of a missed shot by his teammate.

Instead, as a defender pounced on the back of Meacham, Frazier was left wide open for a layup. Meacham made a miracle pass to Frazier and a pumpfake on the shot guaranteed his success.

It was a play that was originally designed for Meacham to take the last shot. As that became unlikely, he improvised.

“I thought Trent was going to shoot the ball, honestly,” Frazier said. “I mean, the play was designed for him to come off and shoot. He made a good read, my guy stepped up to him, and he hit me on the inbound.

“I thought Trent was going to shoot it like he usually do,” he added. “But I think he was kind of nervous to hit the last shot so he kicked it over to me.”

Meacham could only look over at Frazier and laugh.

But about that pass – how did Meacham even see Frazier with a man on his back? Meacham forced a quick, almost no-look pass that found its mark. After the game, his teammates had no idea how the play worked.

Meacham explained all of it simply.

“To be honest, it was one of those things, I was surprised how open he was,” Meacham said. “A lot of times the inbounder can be the most dangerous man so when his man got on me and I couldn’t get a shot off, he was wide open.”

“You take what the defense gives you,” he added. “I found him under the hoop and he was able to finish it.”

Frazier going full tomorrow?

Frazier’s left knee tendonitis wasn’t enough to keep him from playing in the Illini’s matchup against Penn State on Thursday. When asked after the game if his injury could keep him out of Friday’s contest, Frazier replied with confidence.

“I don’t have a choice, this is tournament time, we’ve still got a purpose to play for,” he said. “We’re going to come out and play hard.”

Meacham added that Frazier is likely to keep playing, even if he feels pain in the morning.

“Everybody at this time of the season has their bumps and bruises,” Meacham said. “But he’s a warrior though. We count on him.”

For a second there…

Penn State mounted a nine-point comeback just before halftime and benefited from multiple calls all game long, including a traveling call on a Frazier drive with only a minute to play. But as the Illini got one more chance, two seniors, thinking they could be playing in their last game, watched from the sideline.

Chris Hicks and a foul-plagued Brian Randle started wondering what might happen if things didn’t go Illinois’ way on the last inbounds play.

“I started thinking about it,” Hicks said. “I got worried, started wondering. But then I knew my teammates would get it done for us. I knew they would.”

Randle had questions after fouling out, but could only look on as the rest of the action unfolded.

“I was hurting, obviously, I wanted to be in the game,” he said. “I felt like I could help the guys win and make the plays, but I still believed in them. You know, it’s hard not to question but at the same time I felt confident.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘This could be it.'”