Dozens of Arkansas fans crowded the rails over the tunnel to the Razorbacks locker room after the loss and cheered the strong effort that came up a little short in the final six minutes.
In their first true measuring-stick game of the season, Arkansas (5-1) found itself closer to competing at the national level than at any point during coach Stan Heath's first three seasons in Fayetteville.
As Arkansas prepares to play Missouri (4-3) at 7:05 p.m. tonight in Mizzou Arena, a far-from-satisfied Heath will gauge his team again in its first road game of the season after going 1-9 away from Bud Walton Arena in 2003-04
"The guys may get a few pats on the back for playing Illinois a close game," Heath said. "That's OK, but that's not good enough. It's important that we have no lingering effects, that we don't have our heads down and at the same time we don't feel like we've arrived, either.
"What we do now to not just play with somebody -- but beat them -- is the key."
Arkansas held Illinois down enough defensively to have a chance at the win, but wasn't able to score out of its halfcourt offense and went 17 of 32 from the free throw line, including a 3 of 9 drought down the stretch.
The Razorbacks also lost the rebounding battle 40-33.
Junior Jonathon Modica, the team's leading returning scorer and captain, played just 11 minutes against Illinois and had more turnovers (3) than points (2).
The Razorbacks could have used another offensive outlet against Illinois. Sophomore Ronnie Brewer had a game-high 21 but no other Razorback scored in double figures.
Junior Eric Ferguson, the team's leading scorer going into the Illinois game, scored 7 but added a game-high 6 assists.
More than any other player, Modica has struggled to fit in this season after averaging 16.5 points per game and earning All-Southeastern Conference honors in 2003-04.
He's started every game but is averaging just 18 minutes and 7.8 points.
He's hit only 1 of 7 3-pointers and has taken fewer shots than everyone except freshmen centers Darian Townes and Steven Hill, junior defensive/rebounding specialist Rashard Sullivan and little-used senior Mike Jones.
Modica's struggles were one reason Heath left the Illinois game feeling his team didn't play its best game.
"A big part of that was we have a guy who can get us 10 to 15 points a game, and we're not getting that from him right now," Heath said. "We have to find a way to incorporate him in there."
Modica is at his best when he's being aggressive, Heath said, and that's not the Modica he's seen this year.
"It is a beautiful thing when he takes a couple dribbles, elevates and knocks down that mid-range shot," Heath said. "We haven't seen that. I think he's taking the ball a little too far into the lane and not trusting his mid-range shot, not trusting his 3-point shot."
Heath has never known Modica to lack confidence, but even he admits there may be something to that theory.
"There is a mental side to this and I don't know what it is," Heath said. "He wants to do what I'm asking and it's going to come together."
Heath started junior transfer Dontell Jefferson instead of Modica in the second half against Illinois and he said it was "possible" Jefferson could start tonight.
Executing in crunch time was a problem for Arkansas against Illinois and for now, Heath has told his team the offense needs to run through the 6-foot-7 Brewer during vital stretches of close games.
"Not necessarily that he has to take the shot, but he is the best matchup problem on our team," Heath said.
"If there's a big guy on him, he's quicker. If there's a small guy on him, he has size. He has ball skills and the ability not only to get a shot for himself but to create a play for someone else.
"More than anything else, he has to touch the ball in those situations and we'll see what happens."
Tonight will be a homecoming for Hill, who is from Branson, Mo., fresh off a dominating defensive performance against Illinois.
Hill blocked a career-high 6 shots and altered at least four more to affect nearly 20 percent of Illinois' 52 field goal attempts.
"He'll be pumped up," Heath said. "He has a phenomenal knack for blocking every shot. He expects to block every shot. He thinks every shot, he's going to get if he's in range. He'll play well there."
Missouri will be dedicating its new $75 million, 15,000-seat arena tonight and just as Illinois coach Bruce Weber circled Arkansas as a possible letdown game for his team coming off its matchup against Wake Forest, so did Heath mark this one for the Razorbacks.
"How we respond to Missouri will let us know where we are," Heath said. "I'll see where we are. If we're going to be a good team, we have to be consistent. Good teams are consistent and play well in marquee games."
Missouri has struggled with consistency both offensively and defensively this year, but has a wealth of talented players led by 6-foot-8 sophomore Linas Kleiza (14.3 points, 8.3 rebounds per game) and Jason Conley, who led the nation in scoring as a freshman at Virginia Military Academy with 29.6 points per game in 2002-03.
Sullivan or freshman forward Charles Thomas will draw the assignment on Kleiza, who can go inside and outside, and Hill has shown the footwork to match up with him as well.
Arkansas matched up well with Illinois guards and the experience should be valuable against Conley, sophomore Thomas Gardner and freshman point guard Jason Horton.
"They'll be fired up to play us," Brewer said. "Our team will be ready. I don't think we'll have a letdown.
"We're anticipating going there to play coming off the loss. We want to redeem ourselves and play well."
Arkansas Not Satisfied With Close Loss
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