March 10, 2016

John Groce has beaten the odds before. He coached Ohio to a first-round NCAA Tournament win as a No. 14 seed in 2010 and took the Bobcats to the Sweet 16 two years later despite being seeded 13th, parlaying that success into the Illinois job.

Now he has the under-.500 Fighting Illini playing their best basketball of the season and shooting for another upset as the 12th seed in the Big Ten tournament.

Illinois shocked 13th-ranked Purdue in the only regular-season meeting, and doing so again in Friday's rematch would send it to the conference semifinals.

The Illini (15-18) went 5-13 in Big Ten play and had last four of their previous five heading into the tournament. They qualified for the NCAA Tournament in Groce's first season in 2012-13 but need a stunning run Indianapolis to avoid missing it for the third consecutive year.

New athletic director Josh Whitman said Groce's job was secure for next season prior to the conference tournament, and that has seemed to spark the Illini. They hit a Big Ten tournament-record 14 3-pointers in Wednesday's 85-52 first-round win over Minnesota, then drained 10 more in Thursday's 68-66 upset of 20th-ranked Iowa.

''We've played ridiculously hard,'' Groce said.

Illinois blew a late 11-point lead against the Hawkeyes before Malcolm Hill, who finished just 2 of 9 from the field, broke the tie with a jumper with 1:14 remaining. Jalen Coleman-Lands scored 17 points with five 3s, giving him the school's freshman record with 87 on the season.

''I had an awful game, probably one of my worst games of the year,'' said Hill, who averages a team-best 18.5 points. ''To be able to know my teammates and coaches have confidence to give me the ball in that situation, it makes it that much easier to make plays for this team.''

Hill played one of his best games of the season against then-No. 20 Purdue on Jan. 10, though, finishing with 30 points and eight rebounds while going 9 of 15 from the field and getting to the free-throw line 14 times in an 84-70 home victory.

Kendrick Nunn added 22 on 8-of-12 shooting for the Illini, which finished 54.2 percent from the field while hitting 9 of 17 from 3-point range.

Caleb Swanigan and P.J. Thompson finished with 12 apiece in that contest for Purdue (24-7), which is the tournament's fifth seed after finishing in a four-way tie for third place.

The Boilermakers are in much different position than last year, when they headed into the Big Ten tournament needing at least one victory to solidify an NCAA berth. Coach Matt Painter said this season's team still has plenty to play for despite being assured of a bid - namely getting revenge against the Illini.

"It's human nature, especially in conference, that if you get beat by somebody, you want to get them back," Painter said.

Purdue has won three in a row after beating Wisconsin 91-80 on Sunday behind Swanigan's 27 points and Thompson's 22, both personal highs. A.J. Hammons finished with 16 for the Boilermakers, who shot 62.2 percent from the field for their highest mark since hitting 64 percent against Minnesota in the 2001 Big Ten tournament.

''Even though A.J. and I are the leaders on this team, tonight was a testament to Caleb and P.J. playing in the moment,'' senior guard Rapheal Davis said. ''You saw P.J. and Caleb grow up. I won't be here next year, but with who is coming back, this team will be good.''

Purdue and Illinois have split four meetings in the conference tournament.

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