Illinois makes a play for first place
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[FEB. 11, 2004]
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.
[to top of second column in
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.
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.