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Saturday, March 13

Illinois knocks off Indiana – winning streak at 11!

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[MARCH 13, 2004]  Playing their hated rivals from Indiana in yet another Big Ten tourney match-up between the two teams, the Fighting Illini survived a great second half scoring assault from the Hoosiers and dumped their neighbors to the east, 71-59.  Illinois needed monster games from guards Luther Head and Deron Williams in order to keep their current winning streak alive.  The Illini have not lost since the week of the “Dean Scream”, winning eleven straight, and now move into the semi-finals of the conference tourney for the seventh straight season.  Illinois will face Michigan on Saturday afternoon, and game time is set for 12:40 p.m. on CBS channel 3.  Michigan held off a late Iowa charge and beat the Hawks 79-70.

Early on, it looked like Illinois might blowout the Hoosiers, as they jumped out to leads of 11-3 and 14-5 behind strong scoring from Head. The junior from Chicago scored 10 of the teams first 14 points and Indiana seemed confused about how to shut down the Illini. A 10-0 run by the Hoosiers actually gave them the lead at 15-14 and the Hoosier faithful went crazy. Indiana walk-ons Mark Johnson and Ryan Tapak continued to provide great inspiration for role players everywhere as they both followed up strong Thursday performances with excellent efforts again on Friday. Both scored early and continued to make the most of the opportunities coach Mike Davis has provided during this tourney. Illinois’ Williams looked sluggish early in the game, and after the game coach Bruce Weber let us know why – Williams was vomiting eight minutes before the game and battling the flu.

Illinois seized control of the game for the rest of the first half, running out to a 28-17 lead behind strong outside shooting. Four late points from Indiana’s heart and soul, A.J. Moye, reduced Illinois’ lead to seven at the break, 28-21. Illinois was led in the first half by Luther Head’s 10 points, while super sophomores Dee Brown and Williams only combined for seven first half points. As the teams entered the tunnel, this game seemed an awful lot like last year’s tourney game against Indiana where Illinois built a huge lead only to barely hold on by one. Unfortunately, the second half of this game would provide similar drama and beg Illinois fans to ask, “what ever happened to blowouts?”

The second twenty minutes began well for the Illini, as they maintained leads between nine and thirteen points for most of the first eleven minutes of the half. Head was amazing as he easily shattered his career scoring mark of nineteen. In fact, Head matched his career high in the second half alone on his way to a game high 29 points. Indiana, however, had no intention of rolling over and playing dead and took a 47-35 Illinois lead at 9:45 and went on a 17-5 run to catch Illinois at 52 all with just under six minutes to play. The Hoosiers scored on seven straight possessions and had this writer wondering if Friday night dinner plans at Guzzardo’s was still a possibility (I know one adult in the Taylor family who would have endorsed that plan). Seriously, I turned to my friend Jeff Mayfield and predicted Illinois was going down (thankfully I’m no prophet).

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The turning point of the game came shortly after this as coach Weber called 20 second timeout to steady his team. I have wondered many times aloud who the “Brian Cook of 2004” is for the current edition of the Illini. The answer came yesterday afternoon in very clear and understandable language. Illinois turned to Williams and Deron simply refused to allow his Illini to lose. The Texan would score ten of his teams next eleven point and 12 of their final 19 as Illinois ended the game on a 19-7 run and won by twelve. Williams finished with 20 points and also dished out 7 assists. The heroes for Illini were definitely Head and Williams, but the Illini also received strong bench play from juniors Nick Smith and Jack Ingram and freshman Rich McBride, Lanphier H.S. graduate.

Illinois survived against Indiana, but will have to play much better to win two games in the next two days. In fact, Michigan looked as good as anybody for the first 32 minutes of their game with Iowa. But the bottom line is this: Illinois beats Indiana for the fourth time in five BTT games, Illinois extends their winning streak to eleven and keeps alive the drive for their second straight BTT title

Seven questions on my mind as Illinois moves into the semi’s:
1. Has another player in college basketball improved more year one to year two than Deron Williams of Illinois? He is looking very much like he has surpassed his more famous and renowned former H.S. teammate Bracey Wright of Indiana.
2. Why did only 16,000 plus show up for Friday’s first session to see two great rivalry games? And less than 16,000 for the evening session? Where are all the fans – both sessions were well under the 18,500 capacity? It sounded like Illinois and Iowa had a ton of fans, but where are the Blue and Maze faithful?
3. Where in the world is Split, Croatia? I ask because it seems like a dozen Big Ten players list this as their hometown? Should the LDN and/or CITV schedule an on-site visit to Split for Taylor and Mayfield?
4. Where will Illinois go for the NCAA’s and have they locked up a #3 seed? I’m hoping for a Milwaukee/St. Louis ticket.
5. Has any major D-1 coach ever turned to two walk-ons in the postseason and had it turn to gold like we saw these past two days with Mike Davis and Indiana? Maybe Hoosier fans will lay off this guy for a couple of weeks (probably not).
6. Can I get a promise from the Big Ten that Gene Monje will not work anymore Illini games this season?
7. How exactly did at least 12 of the 22 media members voting on postseason awards think Bill Carmody out-coached Bruce Weber this year? Sorry, Carmody is a great guy, but I’m not seeing it. Weber is definitely coach of the year in my book!

[Greg Taylor]

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