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Friday, Dec. 24

Illini grind out victory over Missouri

Illinois wins fifth BR game in a row, 70-64       Send a link to a friend

By Jeff Mayfield

[DEC. 24, 2004]  I have always loved the atmosphere for the Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis. The two storied programs of Missouri and Illinois were meant to play each other every year in an environment just like that.

This year it was a little different. Since the St. Louis fans are under siege, along with NHL fans all over North America, the Savvis Center crew did not have to take down the hockey drapings and convert the arena to a basketball setup. I've grown comfortable walking into the arena and knocking a few scrap paper pucks into the goals, etc. However, on this night the only visible remnant of anything hockey-related was the rusting Zamboni machine we passed on our way to the press room.

I take that back… I did see the Plexiglas in its compartments a little later in the evening, but that was the only other observable sign. The nice thing was that since there is no hockey, they didn't have to lay the basketball floor down over the ice. That kept the temperatures from reaching frigid conditions at courtside, which is always a plus.

However, minus all the hockey trappings, the players decided to give even the hockey fans some highlights right up their alley. First, there was the game plan implemented by the Tigers. Their only chance was to shoot 70 percent from the field or to really muddy up the game. They came close to executing that plan. They stood the Illini up at the blue lines and sent Illinois' big men to the penalty box frequently. They relentlessly pounded the glass so much so that not every foul could be called. I believe they outrebounded the Illini something like 21-12 in the second half and 38-35 for the game. When you throw it at the net, more often than not, good things happen. The physical play in the second half even seemed to engulf the officials.

The game totally lost its flow and continuity, something rarely seen in Illini games this season and toward the end of the last one. Many fans in our area were starting to panic.

That's when Illinois coach Weber and his men took over. Weber has been coaching them for weeks on what to do in key game situations when the lead is under 10 points. His adjustments and in-game coaching moves were masterful. He put the ball in Deron Williams' hands, and Williams took the game over during the last four-minute rush. The Illini balanced the floor, spread out Missouri's defense, and Williams skated and glided gleefully until he was fouled. Then he calmly sank the free throws. Illinois also ratcheted up the defense and made key stops when they absolutely had to.

Was it a thing of beauty? No. Hockey games rarely are. But on this night when shots weren't falling, loose balls and caroms fell in the enemy's hands, and breaks didn't seem to go Illinois' way, the Illini gutted out and grinded a 70-64 victory.

Good teams win some of these and lose some of these over the course of a season and are satisfied just making it somewhere. Great teams find ways to grind out wins on nights when most lesser teams would succumb. Here's hoping that we are witnessing the construction and the emergence of a great team. There could be no greater time than now. There could be no greater season than the 2004-2005 one… Can I get a witness?

[to top of second column in this article]

Stray shots:

IF your name is Williams, does that mean you take games over in the final minutes? If the answer is yes, I may consider a name change.

I love Weber's set plays or quick hitters, especially coming back after timeouts.

I want to go on record as someone who is not a fan of going to the four-minute timeouts BEFORE we shoot the free throws. Who thought ICING the shooters was a good idea? That logic totally escapes me.

This BR game probably was the quietest one I've ever been to.

Could Illini fans' expectations be any higher?

Jack Ingram gave good minutes off the bench, and Nick Smith got a huge offensive rebound on one of the most unique plays I have ever witnessed. However, Smith was miffed afterward about his lack of playing time and hopes he gets more opportunities soon. I believe we will need him to come up big two or three times the rest of the way. Not many more contributions from the bench in this game, but not a lot of chances either.

Had a great conversation with TV analyst and former UCLA coach Steve Lavin before the game. For some crazy reason he has befriended me, and I've learned a lot just talking to him. He is very excited about this Illinois team and says that they play basketball the right way and would be a joy to coach. He also told me that the only way he would go back into coaching is if the situation was just perfect, because he is really enjoying his TV gig.

Encounters like this one with him last night are things I dreamed of as a kid, and the reality meets the expectation of the dream. I know… I should probably set my sights higher… but meeting people like him that I deeply admire and respect is a great encouragement to me.

Christmas will be a whole lot better at my house because of this win!

Merry Christmas to all… and to all a good night!

[Jeff Mayfield]

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