The Illinois Fighting Illini faced their 1st true road test on Tuesday night against the UNC Tarheels. In what proved to be a great game, the Illini came up just a bit short. The Tarheels avenged a 92-65 drubbing by the Illini last year to defeat them 88-81 in the marquee matchup of the Big 10/ACC Challenge. Free throws and turnovers proved to be the death of the Illini. The Illini shot an amazingly low 41% from the line compared to the Tarheels shooting 76%.
The game was a classic see-saw battle between two of the nations premier teams. Prior to the game, the attention fell on the backcourt matchup of Dee Brown/Deron Williams vs. Ray Felton/Rashad McCants. The Tarheels ending up getting the best of this matchup because of an off night by Brown. If not for Deron Williams almost willing his team to victory, the Tarheels would have cruised in this one.
Sean May led the Tarheels with what might become a typical double double for him. He ended the night with 23 points on an assortment of moves in the lane and 14 rebounds thanks to his excellent positioning, timing, and strength. The Illini were led by Deron Williams 22 points and followed closely by Roger Powell's 20 points.
The game truly went down to the wire until the Illini missed 8 straight free throws to all but hand the game to the Tarheels. However, Illinois learned a lot about themselves in this game. They learned that if your superstar (Brown) is off that they have plenty of capable guys to pick up the slack. They learned that you can't win a big game if you don't take care of the ball or make your free throws down the stretch. Most importantly, they learned that you cannot play good for 36 minutes of a game, it has to be all 40 minutes or you go home a loser in these tough games. When the Big 10 season comes, the Illini will look to this game and find many positives and plenty of negatives to improve upon. Good teams bounce back, Illinois will bounce back.
PLAYER OF THE GAME:
I'm giving this honor to 3 co-players of the game. Sean May for North Carolina did what the Illini nation thought he would do, exploit the Illini interior defense. May had a great night and will continue to dominate the middle all season long. For Illinois it goes to both Deron Williams and Roger Powell. They kept Illinois in the game the whole time. If they can give Illinois consistent efforts like this one look out.
BACKCOURT: Dee Brown had a very untypical game. He was forcing shots all night long and actually appeared a step slower tonight than Ray Felton of UNC. He wasn't the difference maker that he usually is. The Illini need more steals, assists, and points from Dee to go far. Deron Williams on the other hand was pure money all night long. He showed the nation why Illini fans are worried he might go pro after this year. He is no longer a step below Dee. Deron has emerged as the most valuable player at this point in the season. Luther Head played much better tonight than in the Temple game as he looked much more comfortable. Luther needs to relax a little bit more on offense, when he gets in trouble he tends to turn the ball over way too much.
FRONTCOURT: Roger Powell had yet another huge game as he is being counted on to be either the number 1, 2, or 3 leading scorer every game. Roger has been a complete animal all season long and is playing on a mission. A few phantom foul calls on Roger kept him from single handedly carrying the Illini frontcourt on his back. James Augustine had another good rebounding game but must become an interior scoring threat for the Illini to be successful. Nick Smith was uncharacteristically bad shooting the ball tonight but played solid defense on May and made some nice passes. Brian Randle almost had a breakout game if not for the 2 glaring free throw misses during a crucial point in the game. However, Randle looked extremely comfortable compared to the last game. Hopefully this is the Brian Randle that Illini fans have been looking for. Jack Ingram and Aaron Spears each provided solid minutes off the bench.
BENCH: The Illini bench was the key to them winning this game and they just barely came up short. Still they dominated a depleted Tarheel bench in scoring and allowed coach Bruce Weber to use a variety of different matchups. Playing time gets harder to come by each game as the players try to separate themselves from the pack.
Did the commissioners really need to interrupt the game coverage that long? I tuned them out at one point and was shocked to hear the ACC commissioner still babbling while the game was being played.
The camera coverage was brutal, what happened to Illinois on one of their last possessions of the first half right before McCants buried the 3 pointer to put UNC up 6?
I thought for sure Illinois had the game won once Dee Brown made his first 3 pointer and his eyes just lit up. Then he hit another one but after that it was just barely off. Dee will bounce back Saturday for sure.
Dickie V Duke reference count: 27 (actually I lost count)
If Deron and Roger turn in performances like this night in and night out the Illini might be back to face UNC in the Final 4 this year.
Yesterday you'll note that I predicted a 7 point victory for Illinois. It was a typo, I meant to say a 7 point Tarheel victory. I hate being wrong!
Right now Deron Williams may be the best guard in the Big Ten