[January 06, 2014] CHAMPAIGN-URBANA — There couldn't
be anything much better than a second consecutive Big Ten win for
the Illini on Saturday. However, when you consider that everyone
present got to celebrate the great Flyin' Illini team of 1988-89,
you'd have to say that was pretty special. Then on top of that, I
got to sit next to Lynn Laughlin, IBCA Hall of Fame Lincoln Christian University
coach and my former coach, and a former teammate, Ken
Rutledge. I'm surprised the refs didn't flag me for piling
on ... piling on the fun.
any rate, after coughing up a nice lead that the Illini held for
most of the first half, they let Penn State right back in it, and Illinois
was up by only two, 28-26, at the break.
I wasn't happy about it. I
know I should have been, you know, celebrating that awesome Flyin'
Illini team, yet another appearance of the Chief and a visit from
one of my favorite 4-year-olds, Clair. I should have been dancing in
the aisles (but I didn't want to get whistled by the refs for
charging the Chief).
Anyway, it must have been a very inspiring halftime pep talk by
Illinois coach Groce because the Illini came flying out of the tunnel to start the second
half. Illinois hit a couple of big 3s, built a nice cushion and then pretty
much led going away. That's the way you like to see a second half played by the
good guys. Let's go to our stars of the game:
(But first a disclaimer: Many times it is easier to slot our guys
into a 1-2-3 order. However, on Saturday our scoring was balanced, our team
defense was stellar, especially in the second half, and our play in special
situations was very good. So, today I will list them 1-2-3, but this was really
just a good overall team win.)
Star 1: Tracy Abrams
Abrams scored 12 second-half points, pulled down six rebounds, had
five assists and zero turnovers, but what I really liked about his game on
Saturday was how tough he was. I liked his leadership. I liked the way he
huddled our team up when play got chippy around the time that PSU's D.J. Newbill
Star 2: Rayvonte Rice
Rice is just a legitimate good player. Some will say, yes, but he had
only 15 points (he also had seven big rebounds as Illinois walloped PSU 44-32 in that
area). True, but he was drawing attention from the entire PSU team, freeing up his
teammates to penetrate, cut and score. So far, he seems like he is always ready
to play, and it is so nice to have a player or players like that this season.
Star 3: Jon Ekey/Nnanna Egwu/Joseph Bertrand
If you wonder about my sanity in not being able to pick between these
look and compare their stat lines and tell us which you would choose:
Ekey: 11 points, 8 rebounds
Egwu: 7 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals
Bertrand: 11 points, 7 rebounds
Honorable mention: Coach Groce
I probably haven't said this enough, but I liked Groce's halftime
adjustments. I liked the way the team went right at PSU in the second half,
lobbed it toward the basket, and PSU had no answer for that. Coach also
tightened up the defense as the game went along, and Penn State had no answer for
I also liked how he had the team run when they had numbers and
instructed them to be patient and make PSU play defense for most of the shot
clock when we didn't have fast-break opportunities. In addition, I thought his
use of the bench was key as well. We got good minutes from some of our freshmen.
In fact, let's give a special mention to Malcolm Hill. I thought he
was everywhere when he was on the floor. Word on the streets is that he has
been producing quite a bit in practice lately. If this team keeps pushing one
another in practice AND no one cares who gets the credit, this team has the
potential to be a memorable team. And I for one was not expecting that. I am
happy to be wrong through each Illinois win!
Honorable mention: The '88-'89 Flyin' Illini
Just seeing them introduced on the court at halftime made me smile.
I did some grad work on campus during that time, hooped it up with some of those
guys and got to be good friends with manager Gary Bruner. I felt that they
electrified the crowd (the crowd was a little flat in the first half), and the
team fed off that, especially early in the second stanza. Of course it is
always great to have the Chief on hand.
One of the highlights for me was the first appearance in several
years of former Illini great Andy Kaufmann (who will ever forget his last-second
winning shot over Iowa?). I had heard rumors that he didn't leave on the best of
terms and that maybe there were some issues. Whatever the case, I can tell you as
an almost lifelong fan that there were times when Kaufmann played that he
carried the Illini on his shoulders, despite the verbal attacks that maybe he
was shooting too much.
Since we didn't have that many scorers after that stellar
group left, I didn't understand the criticism. In fact, when I saw Lou and the
other coaches, I suggested that they keep giving the ball to Andy. Once again
they weren't looking for additional opinions on the subject.
At any rate, I
never felt that Kaufmann got the credit he deserved. From my perspective, he was
a great Illini, and I will always remember him fondly ... if for nothing
else, beating Iowa!!!
As you can see, it was a great day at the Assembly Hall. Now all the
have to do is draw up a winning game plan to take down those pesky Badgers of
Wisconsin. A 3-0 Big Ten start would really get my new year off to a great
start! Stay warm and have a great week, everybody!