Ground Hog Day Redux For Frustrating Illini

Same old, same old. The Fighting Illini basketball team, so impressive at home, repeated it's inconsistent road play by coming up short at Northwestern Saturday, 71-70. An inspired foe reversed the results of the first meeting in Champaign by grabbing an early lead, outhustling the visitors throughout, and holding on at the end.

The details vary game by game, but the overall big picture is the same. Like road losses at Penn State and Indiana, Illinois starts slowly, rallies to catch up but can't sustain momentum. The home team takes a lead into halftime and extends it to start the second stanza. Again the Illini rally but can't get over the hump, losing a close result at the end.

In each game the home team played inspired ball. Aided by supportive fans, the Wildcats had plenty to motivate them. Battling for their first ever NCAA Tournament berth, NW was playing its first ever CBS-TV game and was determined to reverse embarrassment they endured at the Assembly Hall earlier.

The Illini had incentive also, but as usual inconsistent play and poor decisions at crucial times were their downfall. Those mistakes are less obvious at home, especially when hot shooting masks weaknesses and the home crowd provides extra energy. But it appears the problems are systemic and not easily corrected.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber reiterated the same problems afterward he has in previous road losses.

"Same story, it's just continuous. It's Groundhog Day all over again. Not good starts, fight back. They executed down the stretch, and we broke down defensively when it mattered. Fifteen turnovers, and this is a team that doesn't pressure.

"I understand the fans are frustrated. I'm frustrated. Somewhere here we've got to change. I hope it's sooner than later because it's ticking down."

The Illini didn't always run offense well, but their 49% shooting percentage including 57% from three was good enough to win. Northwestern runs a complicated offense that is difficult to guard. Weber says it was a lack of defense and hustle that hurt the Illini.

"You've got to have a mind focus of guarding people. They got 71 points, that's the problem. And they outplayed us on the Matto. They won 32-27, and those five possessions, loose balls, steals, all those things are the difference in the game."

In an effort to find defenders, Weber played Meyers Leonard for an ineffective Mike Tisdale longer minutes. Illini fans want to see him use the bench even more, but he's unsure where to turn.

"Coaches say, 'Put him in, put him in.' I don't know who to put in, to be honest. It's very frustrating. This guy doesn't guard, this guy turns it over, this guy doesn't do that. Get some consistency. I think we're a good team, but we have to prove it."

Northwestern played extremely well, and that aspect must not be overlooked. Senior point guard Michael "Juice" Thompson hit three big threes down the stretch to be the difference-maker for the Wildcats. He finished with a game high 22 points. And sophomore Drew Crawford made up for a poor game in Champaign by hitting 4 of his first 6 shots.

"To their credit, Juice was great. He hit some big shots, and Crawford got them going early. Crawford didn't play well last time at our place. That's one thing Coach (Jay) Price emphasized. He was embarrassed so he's gonna play well. He hits shots, and now you're scrambling to come back."

If there was an encouraging sign, it was the second half play of Demetri McCamey. Sitting out 8 first half minutes and limited to 2 points and insecure play, McCamey responded to the challenge second half.

He ended with 14 points and 4 assists, and this was the first game in several where he shot above 50% for the game. Perhaps this will help him and the Illini in future games, but it was too little, too late in this one. And Weber reminds the game must be played on both ends of the court.

"Maybe he's out of his funk and will get going. I just wish he'd guard, to be honest. He's got to guard people. They're isoing him. Like Coach (Wayne) McClain just said, so many of our guys worry about offense and not defense. They don't score, and then they don't guard. It's a double whammy."

Brandon Paul led the Illini with 21 points, hitting 4 of 6 three pointers and 5 of 6 free throws. However, he also had 4 turnovers that came at critical times. Weber suggested Paul was tired from playing too many minutes, the result of McCamey's first half absence.

Somehow the Illini must find a way to start fast on the road, maintain focus throughout and remain strong at the end to win on the road. Their next opponent will be a tougher task than NW.

"We've got to do it at the beginning," Weber emphasizes. "You can't get down on people on the road. There's such balance, and such parity, and people play better at home. If you're a good team, you've got to find a way to do it. It doesn't get any easier at Minnesota on Thursday."

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