Junior Rich McBride led the Illini in scoring with 15 points, including 4 3-pointers. Redshirt sophomore Brian Randle added 13 points (including a much-needed 7-8 performance from the free throw line) and 4 rebounds, and Marcus Arnold added 9 points and 6 rebounds in one of his best games yet in an Illini uniform. Not only did the juniors shine on the offensive end, but the Illini defense was stifling.
"I thought Randle and McBride were probably the difference," said Iowa head coach Steve Alford. "They didn't do the things in game one that they did in game two. Randle's a very good defensive player, and he did a very good job on Adam (Haluska) today. They're a very, very good defensive team-to be honest with you, probably the best defensive team in our league. They put a lot of pressure on you, and do a good job of taking you out of what you want to do. We had some key stretches where we took some really ill-advised shots. I thought Arnold played really well, I don't know when the last time he had 9 and 6, I thought Carter did a lot of good things."
The first half was a seesaw battle, with Iowa jumping out to an early 6 point lead. Illinois did not shoot the ball well against the Iowa zone early in the game, and gave up a pair of easy layups on the defensive end. 3 pointers by Jamar Smith and Rich McBride, sandwiched around a Warren Carter basket erased the deficit, and the Illini took their first lead of the game on a Warren Carter dunk. The Illini kept the lead the rest of the half, but it was never more than 4 points until Rich McBride buried back-to-back 3's with less than two minutes left to push the margin to 7, and the Illini went into halftime with a 34-29 lead. The Illini seniors (Brown and Augustine) had difficult first halves. Augustine picked up 2 fouls within 27 seconds of each other at the 16 minute mark, and spent the rest of the half on the bench with 2 points. Brown was 0-6 from the field in the first half, missed two free throws, and went into halftime scoreless.
"I was more nervous than anything else," said Augustine. "I thought it was the last day of my life, or something. It was hard. I was nervous. Everybody acted up like it was the most important thing ever, but I'm glad it's kinda over. It was fun, though-it meant a lot to play in front of this crowd. I never really get nervous for games, but I was so nervous for this one…I could never really calm down. I was sitting on the bench with two fouls still nervous."
"I was a little nervous…so many thoughts going through my head," commented Brown. "It was a big game and a big night for us…it was a great night for us. I just didn't make shots (in the first half). I was thinking too much. I didn't make my first couple, so I just tried to do my job being point guard, and get the ball to the right guys. Rich did a good job of carrying us." Brown ended up with only 6 points, but he dished out 9 assists. Augustine ended with 12 points and 7 rebounds.
The Illini showed a new look late in the first half, running a four-guard offense with Brown, McBride, Chester Frazier, and Jamar Smith all on the floor with Marcus Arnold or Shaun Pruitt. The look seemed to pay dividends-the Illini extended their lead with this lineup on the floor. The quick lineup also seemed to have an impact on the defensive end, holding the Hawkeyes to 45% shooting after the Hawks were well over 50% for most of the first half.
The Illini came out in the second half and quickly gave back most of their lead. Augustine picked up his 3rd foul only 34 seconds into the second half on a Greg Brunner layup, and Brunner's 3 point play shaved the Illini lead to 3 points. That's when the seniors stepped up. Brown hit a 3, and Augustine made a short jumper to push the lead back out to 8, and the Illini never looked back from there. McBride and Brown hit 3 pointers midway through the half to push the lead out to 11, and layups and dunks by Randle, Augustine, and Arnold quickly stretched the lead to 16 with 5 minutes left in the game. The Hawks were able to close within 10 with slightly less than two minutes left, but clutch free throw shooting by Rich McBride and Brian Randle down the stretch cemented the win for the Illini, who knocked the Hawkeyes out of a first-place tie for the league championship.
The Illini defense was very strong in the second half, holding the Hawks to 43% shooting and 13% from behind the arc, while forcing 5 Iowa turnovers and multiple empty possessions. Greg Brunner led the Hawkeyes with 27 points, and Jeff Horner added 11 for Iowa.
The largest cheers of the night came with less than a minute left, when Weber was able to get a time out and replace Augustine and Brown for the last time on the Assembly Hall floor. The sellout crowd was decked out in orange headbands with the numbers "40" and "11", which were distributed by the University to commemorate the night.
"I'm glad….I'm relieved, to be honest, that we won," commented head coach Bruce Weber. "I would have hated, with everything on the line, Senior Day, a chance to be the all-time winningest (players). If we hadn't found a way to win it, it would have been a bad ending to a special career for those guys here in Assembly Hall. To be able to take them out is even better, I think. That's the snapshot that they'll always have in their minds, to be able to look up at the board and see they're winning, and the crowd going crazy. We got the win, we got to celebrate and enjoy it. I thought the bench was great, Dee and James, after they settled down a little bit, James with the airball freethrow, and he cracked the backboard, and Dee even missed a couple of freethrows there, very uncharacteristic. I laughed at James, I said ‘We gotta stop the game and get a new backboard!' and he just smiled and winked at me."
Additional coverage of Senior Night festivities, including quotes from the players and coaches , will be featured in a special story on Illiniboard later in the weekend. Also, there will be a special Senior Night photo gallery posted showing the pre- and post-game festivities.
Game News and Notes:
1) The Illini have the best home-court winning percentage in the nation over the last 7 seasons at .959 (93-4).
2) Dee Brown and James Augustine passed Nick Smith to become the all-time leaders on the Illinois win list, with 111.
3) Dee Brown passed Brian Cook for 3rd on the all-time Illini scoring list.
4) James Augustine now has 981 rebounds. With 19 more rebounds over the next 2 games, he can be the 11th player in Big Ten history to join the 1000 point/1000 rebound club, and the only Illini on the list.