llinois again found itself in unfamiliar territory. Down 43-38 at halftime the Illini were going to have to fight this one out til the end. Illinois is used to having great 1st halves followed by a 2nd half letdown. If that would have happened Saturday, the Illini could have been hearing whispers of NIT instead of NCAA. Instead of folding, the Illini rallied in the locker room at half and came out a charged up group.
"The halftime speech was pretty good, it just wakened us up, letting us know that this is our home court and we gotta fight, that's why we're called the Fighting Illini," said Dee Brown.
Behind 68% shooting in the 2nd half, the Illini were able to breath a sigh of relief after the game. After losing the previous two outings, the Illini didn't know where they were headed. "When we huddle we say Big 10 Champs. It will get our confidence back and in a winning spirit. This boosts our confidence. Every game you play from here on out is trying to get in the postseason," said Brown.
Brown was then asked if he had heard about some people saying they couldn't win the Big 10 title now that they'd lost two in a row. "Tell em to write us off, that's all I got to say, we're gonna fight, coach said we gotta protect the home turf and steal a couple on the road."
Roger Powell came back strong after a two game hiatus in which he spent most of the time in foul trouble. Powell scored 20 points to the lead the Illini and thinks this game will put his team over the hump. "Basketball is all about confidence and we regained confidence with this game."
Illinois had five players in double digits again proving that they are quite a balanced attack. Nick Smith put in 18, Deron Williams added 17, Brown had 14, and Luther Head had a solid game with 13 points on 3-4 three point shooting.
Iowa hung around as long as they could until fatigue finally set in. Everytime Illinois would make a run that seemed to put a dagger in the Hawkeyes they'd charge right back and tie the game. Coach Steve Alford summed up why his team didn't leave Assembly Hall with a victory. "We couldn't get any stops, it wasn't so much what they did to us defensively either, I think we were a little worse on defense than they were, 88-82 on an opposing floor is too many points to give up. You're not gonna win in this league giving up 68% field goal percent."
Illinois Coach Bruce Weber saw lots of things he liked from his team in this game that he hasn't seen for most of the year. The little things like taking charges and diving for balls is what Weber thinks separated the teams today. "The dive with Deron saving the ball, Dee stealing it and calling timeout, those are the plays that make a difference." Coach Weber thinks that his team has probably relied too much on their talent, instead of their heart. He hopes the players are finally realizing that they need to bring the same intensity each and every night. "I think their whole life, these guys are so talented that they've been able to live off their talent. But you also have to play hard, that's how you win. That's why Purdue beat us the other night."
Dee Brown thinks the team is catching on. "When a team plays the University of Illinois they raise their game up, they make shots they haven't made all season, they play with more fire, I think we gotta match their intensity every time we come out on the floor. If we do that, I think we're capable of beating any team in the country."
Brown, Williams, and Head combined for 44 points. Head and Williams each shot 75% from behind the 3 point arc while Brown shined with 8 assists and only 1 turnover.
Powell finally got back on track by getting more touches on the post. Nick Smith played pretty good but must learn to not put the ball on the floor so much. Illinois was lucky to survive the game with James Augustine only playing 14 minutes.
BENCH- Besides Smith, Illinois didn't get much help. Brian Randle and Rich McBride have hit a wall and look tentative. Jack Ingram was the only other player to log minutes and he did contribute 3 rebounds and some hustle plays.