Madison, WI - For eleven minutes, Illini fans felt déjà vu happening all over again. Wisconsin was on a 13-3 run, James Augustine was on the bench with 2 early fouls, the Illini were down by 11, the home crowd was howling, and Big 10 home officiating was in full force. Visions of the Indiana game were flashing through people's minds, and fans could have been excused if they decided to make a long trip to the refrigerator to get another beer. The Badgers had thrown a haymaker, and the Illini were wobbling.
Then Illinois punched back.
Taking a chance he normally doesn't take, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber put Augustine back into the game with 9:34 remaining in the first half, and the Illini responded with a 19-0 run over the next eight minutes to turn the 11 point deficit into an 8 point lead, and the Illini never looked back on their way to a 66-51 victory. "We never play guys with two, or very rarely. I'm looking at the score, and the crowd's getting into it, and we're going down, and down, and down. They got the great momentum, and you just kinda go with it. It's a crapshoot, and it paid off this time. I'm not sure if I will do it again next time."
The victory, the second in a row for the Illini in Kohl Center (and only the second for a Big 10 team in Madison since Bo Ryan arrived), pushed the Illini record to 20-2 (6-2), and may have shown the Illini nation a glimpse of what the coaching staff meant by quotes last week challenging the Illini to be "special", and not just "very good". "We're not as flamboyant as last year." Said Coach Weber. "We're not an offensive juggernaut like last year. We're a team. We play hard. We play defense. We rebound, and that's got us to 20 wins right now. If Brian can stay consistent, and Rich McBride, and Shaun Pruitt, they obviously won't have huge games like this, but not big drop off, not go to zeros, that'll be very important." "I've tried to avoid putting so much pressure on them, because I don't want the pressure of last year. Last year, they wanted it. They were ready for it. I didn't know if this team was ready for it. But now we can start-I'm not saying we're going to win this or win that, but stay hungry, keep maturing, keep getting better. It's really almost done…"
The Illini first half surge was fueled, as usual, by the defense. During the 19-0 run, the Badgers had 5 turnovers and a series of missed 3 point shots, most closely contested by the Illini perimeter defense. Brian Randle was the catalyst on the offensive end, with 5 offensive rebounds, a block, and two baskets in the lane. After the Illini tied the game on a 3 pointer by Rich McBride, they took the lead on a dunk by Augustine, and back to back 3-pointers by Smith and McBride finished the run. The Illini went into halftime with a 34-28 lead, dominating the Badgers on the offensive glass with 10 offensive rebounds and 6 second-chance points, and the Illini defense, as it has all year, held Wisconsin to under-40% shooting (39.1%, 25% from beyond the arc), and forced the Badgers into 8 turnovers to only one for Illinois.
The Illini pushed the lead to 10 early in the second half before the Badgers made the run that everyone knew was coming. After a 3 pointer by Brown, Brian Randle, who had been the star for the Illini in the first half with 10 points and 8 rebounds, and who had surprised everyone by making it through not only the first 5 minutes, but the entire first half with no fouls, picked up 2 fouls in 9 seconds at the 16 minute mark, and by the 10 minute mark in the game, Wisconsin had cut the lead to 2, the fans were back in the game, and the Illini looked to their seniors. After a James Augustine layup off a feed from Dee Brown, Jamar Smith canned a long 3 with Brown getting the assist, Dee made one of two free throws after getting fouled on a drive, Augustine had a breakaway dunk on a feed from Brown, and Rich McBride hit a 3 off Dee's 5th straight assist, the lead was back to 12, and the Illini never looked back.
"Dee has gotten better and better. He's understanding how to get into people, hesitation, getting into the paint. A couple of times he should have shot it, couple times he passed, he's going to learn to get better and better, and we will become a more complete team," said Coach Weber. "Dee's starting to feel it."
Brown and McBride led the Illini in scoring with 16 points each. Brian Randle finished with his first career double-double, with 12 points and 13 rebounds. Jamar Smith continued his offensive resurgence, scoring 12 points while having a perfect night from the field. "It's just amazing…he's an amazing shooter. He hit a little bit of the wall, started doubting. We did some things, talked with him, shot extra, and now he's back on a roll. Somehow we gotta keep that magic going," said Coach Weber. James Augustine had 7 points and 9 boards. Shaun Pruitt had a tough night, going 1-5 from the field an 1-4 from the free throw line to finish with 3 points and 6 rebounds.
The Badgers were led in scoring by Alando Tucker with 19 points. Kammron Taylor added 14, and Brian Butch had 10. Wisconsin has now lost 3 out of their last 4 games, and falls to 15-6, 5-3 in the league.
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