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Friday, March 18

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Illini struggle but put away Knights

By Greg Taylor

[MARCH 18, 2005]  INDIANAPOLIS -- The Illini began their march to the arch with a 67-55 victory over Fairleigh Dickinson on Thursday night at the RCA Dome. Illinois improves to 33-1 on the year and moves into a second-round game on Saturday against ninth-seeded Nevada. The Wolfpack used a nice late run to upend Texas 61-57 earlier on Thursday evening. Other winners at Indianapolis included Kentucky, which beat fellow state school Eastern Kentucky, and Cincinnati, which dominated the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Illinois was led by Dee Brown's 19 points, a nice offensive output from a player many feared might be slumping. Brown really got going with several run-outs and looked good on two long-distance bombs. Reigning conference tourney MVP James Augustine continued to be an animal inside with yet another double-double -- 11 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. Luther Head also found double figures with 13 points on the night.

Illinois started the game well, jumping out to a 9-3 lead behind the inside strength of Roger Powell and James Augustine. Powell hit a 3 to start the game, and Illinois seemed willing and able to expose the inside game of Fairleigh Dickinson. However, the Knights refused to roll over, and they began to chip away at the Illini lead behind the inside game of Gordon Klaiber, who scored nine early points. Illinois looked a step slow for much of the first half and struggled to box out against the Knights.

Dee Brown appeared to break out of his slump with two straight run-outs, and Illinois reclaimed a solid seven-point lead at 17-10 with 12 minutes to play in the half. But the Knights promptly went on a 10-2 run and took a brief 20-19 lead heading into the eight-minute media timeout. After the break, Luther Head keyed an 11-0 Illini run with two 3s and a couple of free throws for a 30-20 lead, and Illinois seemed ready to blow out the 16th-seeded Knights. But Fairleigh Dickinson refused to quit and went on another great run, this one 11-2, to finish the half, and at the break all of Illini Nation seemed nervous as the Illini led by just one at 32-31. A 3 at the buzzer by Tamien Trent gave the Knights momentum heading into the break.

The first half brought sights not seen for most of this historic campaign. Illinois was outrebounded 21-12 by the Knights and gave up an unacceptable eight offensive boards. F-D shot 50 percent from the field. Several Illini players seemed flat-footed when trying to rebound and a step slow on defense. Coach Bruce Weber and his staff seemed frustrated with the lack of passion displayed by several players, and we wondered aloud if the team might have a conference tourney hangover. No word on what was said in the locker room at the break, but our guess is the content was not appropriate for children.

The second half began like many Illini fans hoped it would, as the Illini exploded out of the gate on a 14-2 run to take a 46-31 lead at just under the 14-minute mark for the game. Dee Brown scored 10 of the 14, including the last seven of the streak. F-D called timeout, and the Orange Express looked ready to end the night early for the visitors from New Jersey. The Illini fans in attendance finally seemed ready to breathe a sigh of relief and lose any thoughts of ending the postseason in a most embarrassing fashion.

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Illinois and the Knights basically traded baskets for the remainder of the game, and Illinois lived to see another game. The defense was once again solid, but the offensive juggernaut seen late in the season against Northwestern and Purdue was not evident on this night.

What we liked Thursday night:

  1. Augustine, Augustine, Augustine: The junior from Mokena was once again a beast on the interior, setting a career high for rebounds and playing good post defense. Many so-called experts say Illinois can't go deep in March because of a weak inside game -- they obviously have not seen Augie over the last two to three weeks.
  2. The bench: Jack Ingram was really good once again, Rich McBride showed some good defensive flashes, and how about Warren Carter? He played pretty good D, knocked down a jump shot and gave some valuable minutes.
  3. Defense: We are really on this kick, but let us remind you that defense wins championships, and the Illini were pretty good on the defensive end once again. It wasn't an effort like Sunday against Wisconsin or against Cincinnati earlier in the year, but the Illini held the Knights to just 24 second-half points in cruising to victory.


  1. Sloppy play on offense: This game was not anything to write home about on the offensive end. The team looked flat at times and will need to improve significantly when they have the ball as March games continue.
  2. The competition: We wonder if once again Illinois played down to the competition. Many on media row expected an absolute blowout on Thursday night, but instead Illinois had a game for the entire 40 minutes.
  3. Overall rebounding: Augie was great, but the Illini lost the battle of the boards by 12 and that is unacceptable. Especially troubling are the 15 offensive rebounds the Knights secured.

Bottom line? Illinois wins and moves on. But a much better effort will be needed on Saturday against a good Nevada team, not to mention any other games down the road.

[Greg Taylor]

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