"Little things make a big difference on the road," Bruce Weber said after the game.
Little things like missed free throws, blocking out on rebounds and taking care of the basketball did the Illini in. Illinois converted on only 7 of 18 free throws for the game and committed 14 turnovers in the first half. In the end, Carolina's Sean May and Rashad McCants took control and scored 43 of the Tar Heels points.
The first half was neck and neck, as there were 10 ties and numerous lead changes. Illinois got off to a fast start with solid inside defense and interior passing. The motion offense was working well, as the Illini were able to take the ball to the basket on several occasions.
Roger Powell was the spark, scoring 12 points in the first half and ending up with a near career high of 20 points on 8-10 shooting. Powell and Deron Williams, who scored 10 in the first, were most of the Illini offense. They shot 50% from the field, but were 0-7 from behind the line. Dee Brown was shut out in the first half on 0-5 shooting.
"Dee got a little down mentally, but he will play better," Weber said. Brown finished 3-17 with 8 points on the night.
Little things like failing to get the inbounds pass in right before the half led to a 6-0 Carolina run in the last minute to give them a 39-33 halftime lead. UNC which only had seven players play, challenged the Illini up and down the floor in the first half, and were up to the challenge.
The Tar Heels quickly built an eight-point lead early in the first half, powered by strong inside play. Numerous lay-ups and tip-ins were part of the run. Little things like not boxing out usually end up hurting.
The Illini fought back to take the lead midway through the second, but could not pull away.
"We took the lead and 3 possessions to go ahead," Weber commented. "We kept battling but couldn't get over the hump. We could not make plays or free throws. It was a learning experience."
Down the stretch, the game seesawed again, but the Illini could not convert on their free throws. James Augustine was 1-6 from the line, Brian Randle 0-2, and Powell 4-7. Most of these misses came in crunch time.
A quick 5-0 spurt with 3:45 left pulled the Illini to within one, but missed opportunities and North Carolina free throws finished the Illini off.
Bruce Weber commented on his team's performance on the road.
"We weren't ready for this. Now that we know what it is about, we will be ready next time. You have to do the little things to win on the road and beat them in their place…but it was not good enough tonight."
Although Deron Williams and Roger Powell combined for 42 points, and Williams dished out 8 assists, the Illini could not come through in the clutch. This was a very important test for the Illini, in front of a hostile crowd. It will pay dividends come Big Ten season, where winning on the road is difficult.
The Illini still have some work to do, especially at the free throw line, but there is no reason why this team cannot stay in the nation's elite. North Carolina took advantage of them tonight, but Illinois can play with the upper level teams.
The little plays need to be made next time out against Arkansas on Saturday, and especially on the road against Providence next Tuesday. Little plays mean a lot in the tight race of the Big Ten.
NOTES: Luther Head and Aaron Spears saw action tonight, with Head scoring 9 points and Spears 4…The Illini had 0 turnovers in the second half…Illinois won the rebound battle 42-41.
#43 Roger Powell is having a great year so far