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Friday, March 4

Perfect home finale for perfect Illini

By Greg Taylor          Send a link to a friend

[MARCH 4, 2005]  CHAMPAIGN -- Thursday night was senior night at Illinois, as the nation's No. 1 team said goodbye to five seniors, and possibly two superstar juniors. The story line of the night was farewell, as Illinois sent Gene Keady into retirement (almost) with a thorough 84-50 victory over a struggling Purdue basketball team.

The first half was an exercise in long-range accuracy, as the hometown heroes scorched the nets for 11 3-point baskets, including seven by junior Dee Brown. His final bucket of the half seemed to come from Mahomet, and Illinois looked seriously locked in on offense. Not sure if the rest of the country was watching on the Deuce or not, but let us pull a Nick Smith and give some advice -- guard Dee Brown -- from NBA 3-point land. He is money!

The victory moved Illinois to 29-0 on the year and 15-0 in the Big Ten, with just one regular-season game remaining -- at Ohio State on Sunday (CBS national game, 11 a.m.).

The second 20 minutes was more of the same. Bottom line? Illinois took Purdue to the woodshed over and over again. We found ourselves almost feeling sorry for Purdue and Coach Keady -- until we remembered the Purdue win streak over Illinois from 1997 through 2000, a span of nine games.

Whether it was Deron Williams or Luther Head or Brown, Illinois looked unstoppable from the outside. Brown made his eighth 3-pointer of the game at the nine-minute mark of the game (tying the all-time team record for 3-pointers in a game), and when James Augustine made a steal and converted a breakaway dunk, Illinois led 74-36 and we wondered if former football stars Greg Lewis and Walter Young might be ready to check in for the Orange Invasion.

In this night of goodbyes and tears, several sights really caught our attention, including:

  • The End of an Era -- Gene Keady moves into retirement:
    For as long as we can remember, Coach Keady and his trademark scowl have graced the sidelines for Purdue. Many times we've watched as Keady-coached teams strolled into the Hall only to beat the beloved. It won't be the same next season when Purdue comes to town without Keady.

  • Illinois' five seniors made quite a mark on Illinois basketball:
    Fred Nkembi was a fan favorite as the team's lone walk-on. Jack Ingram made key contributions as he played for his fourth coach in five seasons -- Illinois might not win at Wisky without Ingram. Nick Smith really made his mark during his junior season but could still prove to be a key role player during the postseason. Luther Head went from a guard who couldn't shoot from outside and relied solely on the dunk to the conference leader in made 3-point baskets. And the Rev -- Roger Powell -- recruited by Lon Kruger, played the 3 position under Bail Self and became a great power forward and spiritual leader of the team during his final campaign.

[to top of second column in this article]

Illini players Luther Head, Deron Williams and Dee Brown ponder some of the tough questions thrown at them by the LDN's Greg Taylor and Jeff Mayfield.

  • We saw a true picture of the mentor-protege relationship:
    Coach Weber seemed more emotional than Keady before the game as he and fellow coaches Jay Price and Tracy Webster showered the hall of fame coach with gifts ranging from Orange blazers to Weber grills. Keady seemed to take it all in stride, but it was obvious the love and affection felt for their mentor by the three coaches on the Illinois sideline who have previously worked for Keady.

  • We can't believe it will be eight months until the Hall will rock again:
    We need to go on record -- we are big fans of the new arena idea, even if some administrators may want the Hall to stay forever. But understand this -- the Hall is pretty special when it is rocking, and it was on fire once again Thursday night. We don't want to wait until November to see the boys in orange live from Champaign, but we look forward to road trips to Chicago (twice), Indy and, hopefully, St. Louis over the next five weeks.

  • We're afraid we've seen Deron Williams and maybe Dee Brown for the final time at home in an Illini uniform:
    We were pretty sure Williams was NBA-bound as the last couple of weeks unfolded. And while we're hoping Dee's 90 percent returning quote of three weeks ago comes true, we are becoming convinced we may have seen the last of the Double D's in orange and blue.

The evening ended with an enormous celebration a center court as the Illini were presented their fourth title trophy in the last five years. Confetti was flying, the band was playing, and all seemed good in the land of the Orange. Several thoughts ran through our heads as we watched the celebration unfold: March to the Arch, the Run to Perfection and even Poetry in Motion.

The players have their own motto. It's pretty simple: 10 more games! It all starts Sunday. Saddle up and get ready for the ride of our life.

[Greg Taylor]

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