For those of you who have slept since then, Illinois upset the
high-flying Buckeyes that night 79-74 when the Illini's Brandon Paul
exploded for 43 points!
Work and Payne's hoops schedule got in our
way last season and we gave up our tickets to our local KFC guru,
Jerry Lowry. IF you have to give up your tickets, you want your
good friend to come home with a "W," and coach Lowry did everything
you could ask him to do! You don't expect an Illini player to erupt
for 43 points, but you'll gladly take it. And of course Payne and I
had to miss one of the Assembly Hall's all-time performances.
So, as I explained to my son, we missed a once-in-a-lifetime
outing... and that means that the chances are good that the OSU
Buckeyes will have a long memory regarding last year's game. And
that after seeing our performance or whatever you want to call what
we did at Purdue on Wednesday, coupled together with OSU's 11-2
record and No. 8 national ranking coming into the contest, I just
didn't have high hopes... Please forgive me.
I told him that my expectations were just not very high. Part of
the problem is that I love our guys so much, I appreciate the
investment they've made and the hard work they've contributed, that
I just want good things to happen to them. But there is not always a
correlation between all of that stuff and you getting the desired
outcome. Anyway, on to the game...
I would've been happy with a solid win. Heck, I would've taken a
sloppy, undeserved victory. In fact, I would've settled for an ugly
win on a bad call coming in overtime. All I'm saying is that I NEVER
expected what we saw in Illinois' thoroughly dominating 74-55
thumping of Ohio State in a game that was not that close. How is
that even possible?
I'll tell you how. First, you start by having a group of guys who
appeared to be glad to be here. Mix in some stifling 94-foot
defense. Throw in some intense physicality and mental toughness, and
that was just my fellow fans in C29 and C30... I'm kidding, but not
by much. Add some solid offensive execution. Throw in some great
contributions off the bench. Mix in some great defensive rotations
and switches and hard box-outs on the boards, and you've created a
starter recipe that would be a good hors d'oeuvre to start out with
for every Big 10 game.
On the one hand, you could give it up to Brandon Paul's
consistent 19-point effort that included seven rebounds and three
assists. Or you could tip your cap to the really inspired play of
Tracy Abrams, who finished the day with 13 points, six rebounds and
five assists -- not to mention a boatload of hustle plays. You might
even compliment Joe Bertrand, who has to be the league's best sixth
man so far this year, as he capped the day with 12 points, five
rebounds, three blocks and a wicked behind-the-head dunk.
[to top of second column]
Yes, you could say we saw an outcome in this game that is rare to
experience. But, if you're a glass-half-empty type of person, you
would probably say that Illinois' Nnanna Egwu is not going to go off
for 16 points and eight rebounds every night. You would probably say
that Illinois is not going to cause 16 turnovers every night. You
would say that Illinois is not going to shoot close to 50 percent
every night. You would even say that the Illini will not hold very
many teams to 33 percent shooting from the field. My response... Why
not? When our guys play with that much energy and passion, good
things tend to happen.
I'm not going to say that "anything" can happen, because I still
don't believe that we have all the pieces necessary to make a long
tournament run. But I LOVE teams like ours... when their whole is
greater than the sum of their parts. And that's exactly how I see
this Illini team right now. I LOVED the way Illinois played on
Saturday. I don't know if it was the best game this team has played
this season or not since my wife wouldn't let me go to Hawaii, but
it may have been the best game I have personally seen this group of
players play, and that is saying a lot.
Did I mention that I liked the way Illinois played?
Let me put it like this. I was not expecting an effort like that
on Saturday. To say I was pleased would be the understatement of the
century. And I will take it a step further. IF Illinois can find
some improbable way of bringing effort like that on a regular basis,
especially against Minnesota and at Wisconsin, I think you fans may
really start liking this team.
I sure didn't have us at 14-2 at this juncture, but do you see
that light? ... that faded, obscure light somewhere out there in the
distance on the frozen Illinois prairie? That's me out there
smiling... looking and searching for where Illinois coach Groce
found that energy and effort. I'll let you know if I find it...
[By JEFF MAYFIELD]
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