Thursday, Jan. 8

Illinois blows away the Buckeyes

By Greg Taylor          Send a link to a friend

[JAN. 8, 2004]  I like Bruce Weber, I really do. But I have to ask this question: What in the heck did he do wrong? I mean, when you look at everything he has had going against him in his brief tenure here with the beloved, you have to wonder what in the world could happen next?

Just when it looked like Illinois was overcoming injuries, disciplinary issues and fan/media fascination with former coaches, Weber was hit with another bit of bad news. Junior starter Luther Head faced yet another legal challenge, as he was supposedly arrested on Tuesday evening for several traffic violations, including running a red light and driving with a suspended license. Head was dressed for the game but did not play, and Weber said any decision on further disciplinary action would come at a later date.

Can't Weber catch a break from the craziness? Thank goodness the Illini decided to make a statement and win their first conference game at the Assembly Hall Wednesday night.

This writer was concerned the sub-par effort on Saturday against Illinois State, and the loss of Head could really be a problem for Illinois. However, another problem became apparent just seconds into the game. Early on, referees Art McDonald and Donnee Gray made sure all 16,500 in attendance knew they were in the house, as they whistled eight fouls in the first four-plus minutes of the game.

Illinois jumped out to a quick 10-5 lead after back-to-back 3-point buckets by Rich (not Richard any longer) McBride and Dee Brown. Shortly after, Illinois center James Augustine picked up his second foul and was sent to the bench for the remainder of the half.

The hometown heroes didn't panic however, and after letting the Buckeyes stay with six for the first nine minutes of the game, Illinois went on a 23-4 run to a take a commanding 33-11 lead five minutes before the half. Playing especially well for the Illini were center Nick Smith, who scored 10 points and really showed some great hustle during this run, and Brown, who led the team in scoring (14 points) and emotion.

A 9-2 run by Ohio State drew the Buckeyes within 39-22 at the break, but two things were obvious from the first 20 minutes of play: First, Ohio State has really dropped off from their championship run just two years ago. And second, Illinois' effort Saturday against ISU was just a blip on the screen. Illinois looked quicker, played smarter and shot much better, as Ohio went just 6-of-21 from the field and didn't make any of their six 3-point attempts.

Coach Jim O'Brien, who has battled his loss of voice all season long, started three new players to begin the second half in an effort to spark the visitors from Ohio. The plan seemed to work early on, as the Buckeyes cut the Illinois to 11 at 49-38 in the first four-plus minutes of the second half. Two 3-pointers by reserve Ricardo Billings and a 3 from sub Tony Stockman helped key the Buckeye charge as they began the half with 6-of-9 shooting from the field.


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If Illinois has had a consistent weakness in games this season, it is the inability to sustain strong first-half runs and allow teams to get back into games -- and that is exactly what happened early in the second half Wednesday night.

Illinois refused to fold, however, and responded with a nice 13-4 run to extend the lead to 20 at 62-42. McBride scored five during the run, and Nick Smith continued his strong scoring as Illinois attempted to end the suspense midway through the second half. The final 10 minutes of the game saw plenty of sloppy basketball and lots of free throws as the Illini cruised to victory 85-63.

The refs were in midseason form, as they whistled an amazing 55 fouls and allowed 40 free-throw attempts in the second half alone! Can someone please let them know the game is not about them -- it is about the players?

The Illini received a career-high 22 points from Smith and were also paced by Brown's 16 points and 11 points from the freshman McBride. Brian Randle and James Augustine both also reached double figures, scoring 10 points each. Augustine reached double figures despite playing just 10 minutes because of foul trouble in each half. Six Illini in double figures on a night they had to go without a starter is a sign of the team that has championship potential.

Illinois moved to 10-2 on the season and began the conference season in style, winning their first game.

Illinois will return to action Saturday at the Assembly Hall against Purdue, who lost their conference opener on the road Wednesday night to Iowa 71-61.

Penn State beat Minnesota 75-72 and Michigan beat Northwestern 78-54 as well on Wednesday night, while Wisconsin blew out Indiana 79-45 on Tuesday.

Game time Saturday is set for 3:30 p.m., and the game can be seen on WCIA Channel 3.

Weekend Big Ten games:

  • Michigan State at Wisconsin
    11 a.m. Saturday (national TV -- ESPN)
  • Ohio State at Penn State
    11:15 a.m. Saturday
  • Northwestern at Iowa
    1:30 p.m. Saturday
  • Purdue at Illinois
    3:30 p.m. Saturday
  • Princeton at Minnesota
    7 p.m. Saturday
  • Indiana at Michigan
    3:30 p.m. Sunday (national TV -- CBS)

[Greg Taylor]

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