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Wednesday, Feb. 11

Illinois makes a play for first place

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[FEB. 11, 2004]  They met in 1999 and 2000 for the conference tournament championship game. At least one of these two teams had won a conference title of some kind (regular season or tourney) each of the last six seasons. It is fast becoming one of the better rivalries in the conference, if not the entire nation, at least according to visiting coach Tom Izzo. Oh, and did I mention, the teams are separated by just one game for first place in the conference title chase? What is it we speak of? Obviously, it's your Fighting Illini versus the Spartans of Michigan State.

The teams met Tuesday night with a national television audience tuning in, and both teams came into the contest red-hot. Illinois entered the game with a three-game winning streak, including their first two true road wins of the year. MSU, meanwhile, had won four straight and had shot an incredible 73 percent from the field in their victory Saturday at Ohio State.

Early on, it looked like the Spartans were planning to pick up where they left off Saturday, as they made their first three shots of the game and shot out to a 7-2 lead at the first media timeout. Illinois native Shannon Brown had five points, and MSU looked like they would be tough to beat. The Illini, however, would not roll over on Paint the Hall Orange night, and Illinois went on a 12-5 run to seize a two-point lead just past the halfway mark of the first half. Illinois was led by Roger Powel during this surge, as he scored seven points in helping Illinois take the lead.

Three veteran referees -- Tim Higgins, Jim Burr and Mayfield's favorite, Ted Valentine -- were on duty Tuesday night and appeared willing to let the teams play without the ticky-tack fouls the Big Ten has become known for. The Illini swatted three shots early and looked ready to stand up and go blow for blow with Michigan State, a team known historically as the toughest in the conference and the nation. How refreshing it was to look at the scoreboard at the six-minute mark of the first half and see each team whistled for only three fouls apiece.

Illinois moved their first-half lead to seven with a nice 9-4 run, making the score 23-16. But MSU refused to quit and quickly got back in game, quickly scoring four to bring the score back to 23-20. Of the first eight shots Michigan made, seven came from the perimeter. Illinois went on a 9-0 run right after, as Luther Head and Dee Brown made 3-pointers and Deron Williams got three the old-fashioned way, and Illinois had their first double-digit lead of the game at 32-20 with 1:40 until the half. Izzo was forced to burn a timeout and the Assembly Hall was rockin'! Augustine had another old-fashioned 3 as a result of a Williams steal, and Illinois went into the break with a 35-20 lead. The Illini held Michigan State to just 38 percent from the field in the first half and looked like the team many Illini fans dreamed of most of the fall.


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The second half began with another Illini explosion. Lay-ins by Augustine and Head were followed by 3-point bombs from Head and Williams (despite 3s from Chris Hill and Kelvin Torbert), and Illinois led by 19 at 45-26 as Izzo burned another timeout at 16:49 for the game. Another Luther Head 3-pointer, his fifth of the game, and the rout was on as Illinois had their first 20-point plus lead of the game at 48-26.

Illinois continued to stretch out the lead for most of the second half, going up 27 at the 5:16 mark for the game with an Augustine lay-in. The sophomore center from Mokena was huge on Tuesday night, recording a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds and playing great defense against the best past player in the conference, Michigan State's Paul Davis.

The final score was 75-51 and the crowd was awesome as Illinois blew out the Spartans for the second straight year at the Assembly Hall (Illinois won 70-40 last season in Champaign). The Illini have now won four in a row and six out of seven. Luther Head finished with 17, Deron Williams scored 15, and Powell finished with eight as the Illini continued to get two key ingredients: great team defense and balanced scoring.

The victory moved Illinois to 16-5 on the season and 7-3 in the conference, just a half game behind Wisconsin. The Badgers play tonight at Iowa, and a Wisconsin loss would give Illinois first place in the Big Ten.

Illinois now gets a nice eight-day break, returning to action on Feb. 18 at home against Wisconsin, looking to avenge their 20-point loss back on Jan. 24 in Madison.

[Greg Taylor]

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