Illinois starts NCAA run
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Illini struggle but put away Knights
[MARCH 18, 2005]
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
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.
[to top of second column in this article]
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.