Arkansas Measures Up In The Rock

NORTH LITTLE ROCK -- Arkansas coach Stan Heath knew playing No. 5 Illinois would be a good gauge of where his team stood six games into his third season.

Following the Razorbacks' 72-60 loss against the Fighting Illini before 13,140 on Saturday in Alltel Arena, Heath felt good enough about their effort to crack a joke about where they measure up.

Illinois (6-0) figured to leapfrog to the top spot in the polls after consecutive wins against then-No. 25 Gonzaga and No. 1 Wake Forest by a combined 35 points, but needed a win against Arkansas to clinch it.

"If Wake was the No. 1 team in the country and they won by 18 (91-73), I guess we should be No. 2," Heath said.

Heath had every right to smile after Illinois got its best test of the season from the up-and-coming Razorbacks (5-1), who play at Missouri on Tuesday.

Arkansas shut down what many consider the nation's top backcourt of Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams, held the hot-shooting Illini well below their season averages from the field and had plenty of opportunities from its defense to have a shot at an upset.

Illinois came into the game shooting 54 percent from the field and 46 percent from the 3-point line. Against Arkansas, the Illini shot 33.3 percent (7 of 21) in the second half and 42.3 for the game (36.8 from the 3-point line).

"Our goal was to do the best we could in the first half and hopefully wear them down in the second," Heath said. "To be honest with you, I thought that happened. I didn't think they had the same energy level and we were coming at them."

The Razorbacks trailed 57-53 after two free throws by Charles Thomas with 7 minutes, 49 seconds to play and 60-55 with six minutes remaining but couldn't capitalize on holding the Illini without a field goal for the final 7:32.

Illinois made 11 of 15 free-throw attempts down the stretch while Arkansas struggled to execute in its halfcourt offense and didn't make enough plays to overcome the deficit.

"You short arm some shots, you make a questionable pass you would probably never make, miss a couple free throws, but we never got to the point where we got shook," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "I don't think they ever got it under four and we made enough plays to keep it at eight and they could never get over the hump."

The Razorbacks continued their problems at the free throw line (17 of 32) and went 3 of 9 in the final six minutes while Illinois was turning it over and getting an airball 3-point attempt from Williams with the shot clock winding down.

Illinois had to force four long 3-pointers with the shot clock nearing zero throughout the game and missed each one.

"I'm real proud of the effort we showed at the (defensive) end," Heath said. "It gave us a chance. For us to take that next step, we have to be able to make some shots and knock down some free throws. Those two things are big if you want to beat a team like Illinois and we didn't come through on that."

Arkansas was led by sophomore Ronnie Brewer's game-high 21 points and 4 steals but didn't have another player score in double figures.

Sophomore Olu Famutimi and freshman Charles Thomas had 9 each, leading scorer Eric Ferguson added 7 and a game-high 6 assists and junior Rashard Sullivan had a team-high 7 rebounds.

"I learned our team has a lot of heart," Brewer said. "We kept fighting and never gave up. We knew coming in they were the No. 1 team and no one backed down to them. We took it to them on every play, we just didn't get the win."

Illinois won the rebounding battle 40-33, but 7-foot Arkansas freshman center Steven Hill had a dominating effect in the paint defensively and the active presence of Thomas, Sullivan and Hill helped get Illinois forwards James Augustine, Jack Ingram and Nick Smith in early foul trouble.

Hill blocked a career-high six shots, altered at least four more and sent Illinois' leading rebounder (Augustine) to the bench with two fouls and 10 minutes left in the first half after changing his shot and drawing an over-the-back foul.

"It was an incredible learning game," Hill said. "(Illinois) taught us how to finish at the end, how to make free throws.

"We surprised some people. I don't know if we're on the radar now, but we proved something to ourselves. We can play with some of the best teams in the country."

Head, who came into the game leading Illinois with a 17.2-point average, was put in check by Famutimi. Head had 3 points in the first half and finished with 8 on 2 of 7 shooting.

Guarded mainly by Brewer, Williams shot 3 of 11 and didn't break double figures until four free throws pushed his total to 13 in the final three minutes.

"They came out aggressive and certainly tried to disrupt us and cause turnovers," Williams said. "We really haven't been pressured that hard this year."

After Illinois committed a stingy six turnovers against Wake Forest, Brown had 7 turnovers against Arkansas' pressure and the Illini had 14 for the game (eight in the second half).

"Those are three of the best guards you'll see as a combination," Heath said. "To hold each one of them, I thought we did a good job. They weren't nearly as effective on the perimeter in the second half."

The player Arkansas had no answer for was 6-foot-6 senior forward Roger Powell, who scored a team-high 19 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.

Arkansas traded punches with Illinois early and trailed 17-16 with 12:05 left in the first half before Williams hit the first Illini 3-pointer to put them up four.

Consecutive poor possessions on the defensive end led to a pair of easy Illini baskets and they led 38-26 with less than four minutes before intermission.

Famutimi countered with a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 40-31 and Hill blocked Warren Carter's shot off his leg, leading Heath to run down the sideline jumping up and down clapping his hands, yelling, "That's what I'm talking about!"

Arkansas started the second half with a flurry led by Brewer and Hill.

Brewer stole Illinois' first entry pass and tossed an alley-oop to Famutimi, robbed another pass and dunked, followed up a Hill block with a driving field goal and cut baseline to take a feed from Ferguson for another dunk to make it 45-39.

But Arkansas' halfcourt offense would stagnate into failed one-on-one isolations against the just as defensive-minded Illini to keep the Razorbacks from fully closing the gap.

"If we'd made a couple more free throws and some easy baskets, we could have won this game," Ferguson said. "We're a dangerous team."

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