Playing on the Phoenix Suns' home court, Arizona looked the part of the NBA team on their first possession when after a defensive rebound and outlet, Shakur pushed the ball up the floor and delivered a Nash-like crosscourt bounce pass to Marcus Williams who promptly knocked down a 12-footer. For the Wildcats, the play was only one of a few for their fans to get excited about early on as Illinois used tough defense and proficient shooting to outscore Arizona 20-9 in the game's first seven minutes.
Things did not get any better for the Wildcats whose defensive rotation could not keep up the Illini's quick and crisp perimeter passing. Illinois capitalized on their good ball movement to find and knock down open shots that enabled them to build the lead to 33-17 with 7:45 to play in the first half.
The game marked the 13th time the two schools have played with each win six games apiece. The rivalry has been a heated one that has featured many epic battles, including the 2005 Elite Eight game that saw Illinois overcome a 15-point deficit in the game's final four minutes to eventually edge Arizona 90-89 in overtime.
Saturday's game featured a large comeback as well, but this time the tables were turned. Arizona made some adjustments on defense and began to make some shots of their own in mounting a 19-8 run to close the half and trim Illinois' lead from 33-17 to 41-36.
The run was bolstered by heady play from point guard Mustafa Shakur and a shot of adrenaline that the fiery, chest thumping Jawann McClellan infused into the arena after several offensive rebounds and put backs. McClellan's spirited performance is just the kind of thing Arizona needed to rebound from a lackluster beginning to the game that saw Illinois outhustle and outrebound the Wildcats time and again.
Arizona's starting guards combined for 19 points on 9 of 14 shooting. McClellan finished with five rebounds – four coming on the offensive end. Shakur finished with four boards of his own while dishing out eight assists to only three turnovers.
Ivan Radenovic continued his steady play for the Wildcats, scoring 13. Marcus Williams also played well, making several key shots on his way to 20 points. Williams' biggest basket came with less then two minutes to play when he rotated behind the dribbler, caught the pass and stroked a three-pointer that made the score 74-70 with 1:11 to play.
What's becoming a developing story within the story of every game is the play of freshman Chase Budinger. Budinger scored 22 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had three assists while converting 8 of 10 free throws. Budinger made several big shots throughout the game and made the most of his assists by setting up a cutting Williams on two occasions when a basket was dearly needed.
Trailing 51-45 with 16:30 to play, Shakur keyed a 12-0 run by driving the lane. He scored five consecutive points and set up a teammate for another two. Illini would not fold, though. They responded with a 10-4 run of their own to knot the game at 61 with 6:55 on the clock. McClellan and Radenovic both made three's in a frantic three minute stretch that saw the Wildcats take the lead at 71-70.
Williams then made his key three-pointer and the Wildcats never looked back, finishing the game on a 13-2 run.
Illinois' Warren Carter had an outstanding game. The forward finished with 24 points on 11 of 17 shooting. He also had 10 rebounds and four assists before fouling out in the closing minutes.
The US Airways Center provided a March Madness type backdrop to a competitive game that featured two very talented teams. Both teams played well in shooting better than 50.0% from the field and will prove worthy adversaries for their future opponents.
Up next for Arizona is a trip to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night to play the Louisville Cardinals (2-1). The game is part of the Jimmy V Classic and follows the early game pitting Oklahoma State (9-0) against Syracuse (7-1).
This was a great game for Arizona. Sure, they fell behind early and the game was still in doubt with two minutes to play, but the Wildcats proved that they could handle adversity – something last year's team was unable to do. Trailing by 16, Arizona outscored Illinois by 11 to close the half. What impressed me most by the comeback is the run was spurred more by Arizona's defense then their offense. Unlike the offensive blitzes that Arizona has used thus far this season to runaway from opponents, Arizona's defense locked down Illinois in the 1st half's final eight minutes and the Wildcats were able to claw their way back into the game. Budinger was outstanding during the run, as was an aggressive, amped up McClellan who's offensive boards and put backs were back breakers for the Illini. Shakur also did a great job of setting up his teammates and finishing at the rim when the lane opened up for him. Arizona proved several things with this win. First, like great Arizona teams of the past, this team can never be too far behind to be considered out of a game. Second, Arizona proved that they are willing to play defense and bang with more physical teams. Third, Arizona most likely has the best starting five in the country as all five positions (outside of Radenovic running the point) are interchangeable. Fourth, Olson and his staff appear to be coaching harder than ever and the players are both listening and responding.
Arizona couldn't match Illinois' intensity in the game's opening minutes. The result was a ho hum first half that saw the Illini jump out to a 33-17 lead with 7:45 to play. Arizona's defense, which has been strong thus far, seemed overmatched against an Illinois team that was willing to make the extra pass time and time again. Illinois was shooting and making open shots from everywhere on the floor. They also won the early rebounding and turnover battles. Arizona's defensive rotation was slow, but Illinois' crisp passing had a lot to do with that. Overall, Arizona's poor play early really had more to do with how well the Illini came out the gate and took the game to the Wildcats. Arizona will learn from this and will be a better team for it.
This isn't so much a knock as it is a shock. Williams making only 7 of 13 free throws is scary in that he's too good a shooter to shoot at such a low percentage. I mean, these are Shaquille O'Neal types of numbers. Last year, after a slow start from the line, Williams picked it up significantly and became much more reliable at the stripe down the stretch. Hopefully, he'll do the same as this season progresses because he's too valuable a player to our team to have to limit his touches at the end of games because he can't hit his free throws. Williams looks like he's aiming the ball at the free throw line. A little extra work during practice and I'm confident he'll be fine. What was really ugly in this game is the fact that Arizona had only one rebound in the game's first eight minutes. Granted, Illinois was knocking down every shot as if the basket was the size of Lake Michigan but still, one rebound is one rebound and that helped the Illini jump out to the early 16 point advantage.