NCAA Tournament: Illinois’ Alfonso Plummer finally has his shot at postseason glory

And if time is running out, the score is close and the ball is looking for a hero to send it spinning toward the rim? “I’ll be ready,” Plummer says.

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Illinois’ Alfonso Plummer lines up a three in a win at Indiana.

Illinois’ Alfonso Plummer lines up a three in a win at Indiana.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Show of hands: Who remembers the jumper swished by skinny North Carolina freshman Michael Jordan to beat Georgetown in 1982? Or the dunk by North Carolina State’s Lorenzo Charles to shock Houston in 1983? Or the shot by Indiana’s Keith Smart to beat Syracuse in 1987? Or the one by Duke’s Christian Laettner to beat Kentucky in 1992?

But then, those questions are kind of silly. If you’re old enough, you remember all those iconic NCAA Tournament baskets. Of course you do.

Two-point shots, all. How quaint.

For a long time now, though, the three-point line has been where glory and despair meet. That’s true in basketball on the whole and especially so during the Big Dance. If you don’t have a shot in your highlight reel like the one Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew hit to upset Mississippi in 1998 or the one Loyola’s Donte Ingram buried to stun Miami in 2018, you’re probably not in the March magic club.

Still yet to be topped is the 2005 explosion by Illinois to erase a late 15-point deficit against Arizona and win in overtime for a spot in the Final Four. Images of three-point shots flood back instantly: two each by Deron Williams and Luther Head in the wild closing minutes of regulation, and two more by Williams in OT. Goodness, it was something.

But so was Mario Chalmers’ three — over the outstretched arm of Derrick Rose — to get Kansas to overtime against Memphis in the 2008 title game. So was Davidson’s baby-faced Stephen Curry shooting down Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin — they never had a chance — in 2008. In 2010, Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh (who?) had the audacity to drain the three that sent top-seeded Kansas packing. Villanova’s Kris Jenkins won the title with a buzzer-beating three against North Carolina in 2018. Last year, Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs hit a 40-footer at the buzzer to beat UCLA in a Final Four semifinal.

Each magic act, as great as the last.

What the heck does any of this have to do with Illinois’ Alfonso Plummer? Maybe nothing. Maybe he’ll experience his first and only NCAA Tournament without writing his name indelibly into postseason lore. After arriving at Illinois as a graduate transfer from Utah for a “super senior” season allowed because of the pandemic — and stepping on the court for the first time as an Illini at 24 years old — Plummer could go quietly into the next chapter of his life.

But he also is a three-point shooter more than capable of pulling off something unforgettable. If the Illini are going to have the tournament success they dream of, Plummer will have to shoot them over the top.

“If it happens, it’s not going to be a surprise to me,” he said. “Because I’m ready for that.”

Plummer played his first two college seasons at Arizona Western College, moving there from his native Puerto Rico. He played his next two at Utah, a short, stocky, springy lefty on a nondescript team headed nowhere. Forgettable is Plummer burying 11 threes — that’s right, 11 — in his first Pac-12 tournament game but losing anyway. How fortunate he and Illinois are to have found each other.

“I know that a lot of players want to be in a situation like this,” he said.

Plummer, the Illini’s second-leading scorer at 14.8 points per game, has made 93 threes this season. Only Alabama’s Jaden Shackelford (99), Villanova’s Collin Gillespie (98) and Tennessee’s Santiago Vescovi (95) have made more among all players from the major conferences.

Coming off the Illini’s clankfest against Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, Plummer is itching for a hot streak. And when he gets on one of those, he can be brilliant. Like he was in going 8-for-10 from long range against Ohio State and 6-for-9 against Michigan in back-to-back games in February, and when he went 7-for-9 at Kansas State and 6-for-11 against Texas Rio Grande Valley in back-to-back games in November.

Streaks like those are what he pictured for himself if only he would ever have a chance to play in the Big Dance. It feels funny to point out a pandemic “bright side,” but this chance Plummer wouldn’t have otherwise had is a gift.

“I was, like, sitting back and just watching [tournament] games before,” he said. “I saw all these fans and people going crazy for their schools and was like, ‘I want to be like that. I want to have that feeling.’ So right now I’m in that position, and I can tell how special it is.”

It’s an opportunity he plans not to waste.

“I’ve played a lot of years of basketball, been in a lot of situations, under pressure, nervous, a lot of people talking smack about me,” he said. “I’ve been in a lot of different situations in my life, and I know I’m ready for anything. I’m always focused, always going to be ready to do my best.”

And if time should be running out, the score close and the ball looking for a hero to send it spinning toward the rim?

“In my mind,” Plummer said, “I’m like, five … four … three …”

Any kid who’s picked up a ball has done that countdown — alone in a gym, in a park, in an alley, in the driveway.

But a March magician does it onstage, under the lights, before a mesmerized audience hoping to not believe what it just saw.

Five … four … three …

With the emphasis on “three.”

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