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
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
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
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
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
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