Last winter I spoke in detail with former Illinois players Andy Kaufmann and T.J. Wheeler, along with Iowa players Acie Earl and Kenyon Murray about one of the most incredible endings to a game in Big Ten basketball history. The backdrop of Illinois’ NCAA investigation spurred by an Iowa assistant coach coupled made Kaufmann’s shot the epic moment in a white-hot rivalry. Here’s what the players remember from Feb. 4, 1993 (from last year). The teams play at 6:30 p.m. Saturday (BTN).
IOWA CITY — Andy Kaufmann still hears about his shot at weddings and funerals.
Friends remind him of it every time the Fighting Illini battle Iowa in a basketball game. People still shake his hand and tell him they were at The Assembly Hall the night he buried a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift Illinois past Iowa 78-77 on Feb. 4, 1993.
“I just live in a small town in Illinois,” Kaufmann said. “I get people coming up talking about the shot against Iowa at the time. I hear that, probably, every couple months, or sometimes it will happen four or five times in a week, one of those things.”
Twenty-one years later, the Iowa-Illinois rivalry has faded. But the memory of Kaufmann’s shot at the height of tension between the two programs still resonates on both sides of the Mississippi River.
Four years before Kaufmann’s shot, the schools were embroiled in perhaps the Big Ten’s most intense controversy. Iowa assistant coach Bruce Pearl secretly taped Chicagoland prep Deon Thomas admitting he received an offer of $75,000 and a new vehicle from Illinois assistant Jimmy Collins. Pearl turned over the tape to NCAA officials, which launched a formal investigation. The NCAA found no evidence of wrongdoing by Illinois in that case, but discovered other violations and Illinois received a one-year postseason ban.
Thomas, who later became Illinois’ all-time leading scorer, sued Pearl, but the lawsuit was thrown out of court. The debate continues to this day as to whether Pearl was a whistleblower or a liar. Either way, Illinois’ players remain bitter about the investigation.
Entering that game, No. 9 Iowa was still in an emotional fog after the death of starting forward Chris Street two weeks earlier. The Hawkeyes (14-3) had beaten Michigan State and eventual national runner-up Michigan in consecutive games before traveling to long-time rival Illinois (12-6 but unranked).
“You’ve always got that back in the mind, there’s a team coming in that’s ranked higher than you on your home court,” said Illinois guard T.J. Wheeler. “You just never forgotten anything that happened three years prior to that.”
“I would definitely think back then at that time, there was some hard feelings, and I think it got the crowd’s interest,” Kaufmann said.
“Basketball is a funny game,” Iowa center Acie Earl said. “We were on a roll. We beat Michigan State and beat Michigan. We played good. We felt we were good enough to win.”
The game featured the typical ebbs and flows of Big Ten competition until Iowa took a 75-71 lead with less than 50 seconds left on a Kenyon Murray free throw. Kaufmann later hit a free throw to bring the Illini within one point at 75-72 with 40.9 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing inbound play, Iowa’s Wade Lookingbill overthrew Iowa center Acie Earl. Illinois guard Rennie Clemons picked it off and dished to Richard Keene, who knocked down his fifth 3-pointer of the game to tie the score at 75-75.
Iowa had the ball with 36 seconds left and worked the clock. With about five seconds left, Earl shot left of the basket, and the ball hit the side of the rim. It fell flatly downward and caromed off Iowa’s Jim Bartels and Illinois’ Thomas and bounced straight up. The ball hit the backboard and miraculously went through the net.
“I think Acie shot his shot probably 10-15 feet away and, of course, back then that’s where we want Acie Earl to shoot it from,” Wheeler said. “It was short and Jim Bartels — it almost was like a reaction — the ball came off the rim so quick and you don’t have time to grab it. So when he lifted his left arm, it went off (Thomas’) shoulder, it went off the backboard and right in.”
Illinois players hollered for a timeout and the clock expired. Iowa’s players started to cheer. The officials went to the monitor and gave the Illini 1.5 seconds.
“A couple of us, we didn’t kick the ball up into the C section, we at least reacted and called timeout,” Wheeler said. “Then it was one of those times, 1.5 seconds, you’re walking back to the huddle and you’re like, ‘There’s no way that just happened, did it?’ You’re asking some guys in the huddle, ‘Did it hit you? Where did it go?’”
Illinois had to throw a full-court pass with 1.5 seconds left. Wheeler, a former high school quarterback, was called to toss the ball out of bounds.
“For some reason, and I can’t tell you why, but for some reason, both days prior to that game, we worked on this out-of-bounds play,” Wheeler said. “I was a junior at that time, and we had never put this play in before. I’ll never forget, two days prior to that game, 15-20 minutes a practice, and I never threw it right. I took it out because I was a quarterback in high school. I remember throwing it where the ball would just curve. I could never figure out how to throw it. I remember after practice, I told Andrew, ‘Just stand down there and let me see if I can hit you with it.’
“We’re in this huddle and at first, the play was going to be designed throw it up high and let Deon go get it. Our heads are still down. I remember leaving the huddle and I looked at Coach (Lou Henson) and said, ‘Why don’t we just run the play we just ran?’ The horn was going off. We just practiced it two days in practice. So I’m walking out of the huddle. I remember grabbing Rob Bennett and Deon, and it was kind of like you’re playing football.”
In the Iowa huddle, there was one simple instruction for Murray and the remaining Iowa defenders. Murray, then a freshman, drew Kaufmann, an all-Big Ten senior.
“Coach (Tom Davis) was saying, ‘Don’t foul.’” Murray said. “‘Don’t foul.’ So I wanted to make sure I was close enough to bother him.”
The Illini designed a double pick at the top of the 3-point line. Before heading to the court, Wheeler tried to put everyone in the right position.
“I wrote on my chest, ‘You guys are going to stand here,’” Wheeler said. “And I said to Andy, I put my third finger to the far right of my chest, ‘You’re going to stand there. Andy, you come off both of those picks, and I’m going to try to hit you moving.’ Then it clicked.”
“After everybody got together, everybody was a little bit down,” Kaufmann said. “When we went into the huddle after the last second, I remember the play that we practiced, and I looked at T.J. and said, ‘Throw it to that area.’
“Finally we got the play together and T.J. was in the game to throw a timing pattern, and looked at me just like it was football.”
Iowa coaches sent Earl and Jay Webb to guard Wheeler at the baseline. Earl then turned and raced down the court. Webb, who stood 6-foot-9, stayed in front of Wheeler.
“I’m thinking, ‘I’m not going to be able to do it, throw anywhere around this guy,’” Wheeler said. “Then I remember Lou or somebody yelled, and little Rennie Clemons was still with us, ‘Rennie go set a pick.’
“I remember taking two or three steps to my left, then I came back to my right and Andy came off two picks.”
Clemons’ pick neutralized Webb at the same time Kaufmann moved from Wheeler’s left to the far right.
“I was just on the baseline and swung around like the wing, and went to the other side of the court,” Kaufmann said. “The pick was right there on the wing, and I was down on the baseline. I took a double screen and ran to like the east end of the Assembly Hall floor. He threw it perfectly.”
“It was my one of 70 passes that I completed,” Wheeler said.
Kaufmann caught the ball near the Illinois bench in front of Murray, who was responsible for Kaufmann. Murray stumbled away from Kaufmann once he caught the ball.
“I was off balance,” Murray said. “I wasn’t able to get my hand up as much as I should have.”
“I can’t jump very high, but I was just lucky enough,” Kaufmann said. “I was extended as much as I was going to jump. I was able to grab it. I remember fending off some guy (Murray), who fell out of bounds. I remember him being on my backside during the game. I just turned, took a dribble.”
Although it was a catch-and-shoot situation, Kaufmann was able to dribble once with his left hand.
“Luckily enough I was able to grab it, keep the guy off of me so I could dribble,” Kaufmann said. “Most people said, ‘How would you have time to dribble with 1.5 seconds left?’ My viewing was I was going to get a good shot off whether time ran out or not. I was going to get a good shot off, that was my feeling.”
Kaufmann corralled the ball near the sideline, about 25 feet away. After his dribble, he lunged toward the basket and released with .1 second on the clock.
“It was as good of release I’ve ever had in a game,” he said. “I’ve never shot that far out, since or before.”
“He just turned and shot it,” Wheeler said. “If you watched tapes, the great part about Andy is, he knew when he released it that was going straight in. He would tell you that. He wouldn’t want anybody else on that team taking that shot. He wanted to be the hero or the goat. He wouldn’t want it any other way. That’s just how Andy was.”
“It happened so fast,” Murray said. “It was just one of those things in time where, you run it back in your mind, over and over and over, what you would have done differently. He makes that shot one out of 10 times, two out of 10 times? That just happened to be the one that day.”
The Assembly Hall exploded into euphoria. Clemons tackled Kaufmann. Students rushed the court.
“I remember it was just electric,” Kaufmann said. “I remember running to the other end and people started piling on me. I was stuck, I couldn’t move. I had my arm behind me. I wasn’t celebrating as much on the floor as most people think. I was just trapped underneath.”
In the midst of the frenzy, both Wheeler and Kaufmann thought of the situation involving Pearl, their rivalry with Iowa and absorbed the moment.
“You go from being, ‘Did this really happen to us?’” Wheeler said. “I remember the Orange Krush rushed the floor and you’re all in piles after the game. Just an unbelievable feeling. I don’t know, to be honest, if that was against Wisconsin or Michigan, nobody rushes the floor. I think it was still so much of the NCAA investigation and Bruce Pearl, everybody still had that on top of their minds.”
“It was the shot against the right team at the right time, as far as Illinois fans are concerned,” Kaufmann said. “I was in a haze, in a fog, kind of a euphoric feeling. You don’t get that much from sports except for endings like that. I was still happy in the locker room, in the interview room. I was still pumped up. It was just a sensation never I’ve felt before on the court. A few times you get that, but not that that exciting. The Assembly Hall was full, and you bring in Iowa. I guess that’s the reason.”
Iowa’s players were running on fumes after the game and in the locker room.
“The highs of emotion,” Murray said. “We’re still playing on a lot of emotion, coming off everything with Chris (Street). You go from the highest of highs, thinking that you’re going to get this win, to the lowest of lows. It just happens. That’s one thing Coach (Davis) said, ‘You’re going to play a lot of games. You’re going to win a lot, and lose a lot.’
“Great players step up and do great things. Kaufmann was an all-Big Ten player, and that’s what he did.
“You can laugh about it now, but it hurt back then. I don’t care what you say. It sucks.”
Earl scored 19 points in the game but his memories remain a blur.
“I don’t remember a lot of that game, to be honest with you,” Earl said. “I remember that I had a good game, but I don’t remember it. I know we were ahead, and then I remember they threw it at half court and Andy Kaufmann hit that shot.
“It turned out that game didn’t necessarily hurt us because we ended up going to the tournament. If we won that game maybe we would have gotten a better seed.”
AFTERMATH AND BEYOND
Iowa and Illinois later met in the 1993 season finale at Iowa City, which the Hawkeyes won 63-53. The teams qualified for the NCAA tournament that season with both earning first-round wins and second-round exits.
Pearl, who left Iowa the season before Kaufmann’s shot, eventually competed against Illinois in the 2005 NCAA tournament Sweet 16 as Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s head coach. Former Illini players, like Wheeler, immediately contacted then-Coach Bruce Weber.
“I remember texting him, ‘P.S., if you can beat them 30, beat them 30,’” Wheeler said. It’s one of those things. I know who their head coach is. If you can beat them 30, beat them 30.”
Pearl, who was fired in 2011 at Tennessee for his own NCAA violations, now serves as an ESPN basketball analyst.
“I think the message boards would blow up if Bruce Pearl came back and did the game,” Wheeler said. “I think all hell would break loose, especially on the Illinois message board. That would be an 80-pager right there.”
Last February, the world turned full circle for Earl and Kaufmann, who met again on a basketball court in central Illinois.
“It’s funny a few weeks ago we were down in Springfield, playing in an AAU tournament and Andy Kaufmann’s daughter, our daughters played against each other,” Earl said. “The first thing I said to him was, ‘Please don’t let your daughter hit a half-court shot to win the game.’ That was kind of funny.”
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