New Faces, Same Old Results

No Dee Brown, no James Augustine. The new kids were in town for Illinois, but the results were just like the old days. The 2006-2007 edition of the Fighting Illini finally took the court with something on the line, and defense was the name of the game as Illinois defeated Austin Peay 80-35 in the season opener Monday night at Assembly Hall.

In a game that was never in doubt after the first five minutes, Illinois held the Governors to the second-lowest point total in Assembly Hall history, and the 45 point margin of victory was the largest since the Illini defeated Bethune-Cookman 97-47 in 1999. Austin Peay converted only 13 field goals, also the 2nd fewest in Assembly Hall history. The strong defense made up for a somewhat inconsistent offense and poor free throw shooting. "I was very impressed with Illinois' defense. It was absolutely overwhelming to us," said Austin Peay head coach Dave Loos. "They were just too big for us inside, we forced some things early, and the game got out of whack for us pretty quick. I hope we don't see this kind of pressure in the league. Thank goodness we don't play in the Big Ten."

Jamar Smith recovered from a lackluster exhibition season and led the Illini with 19 points on 5-8 shooting from behind the arc. Smith's evening was cut short when he injured his ankle in a collision near midcourt early in the second half. After the injury, Smith immediately went to the locker room with trainer Al Martindale, and didn't return to the court. "It's most likely a sprained ankle. It's a little higher than we like, the high ankle sprain. I anticipate he'll be out for a little bit…a week, two weeks."

The Illini flexed their defensive muscle early, holding Austin Peay to only 7 points through the first 10 minutes, while forcing 8 turnovers. At the same time, the Illini offense was in high gear from the start, as the Illini built a 19 point lead by midway through the first half. The Illini used runs of 10-2, 16-3, and 12-3 to build a 44-20 advantage at the break. Smith led the team at the half with 16 points, Shaun Pruitt added 9, and Brian Randle, who was hampered by a groin injury that had his playing status in doubt until game time, chipped in 7. The Illini defense held Austin Peay to 32% shooting in the first half, and 28% form behind the 3-point line, while Illinois connected at nearly 60 % in the first half, and a lofty 50% from behind the arc. Free throw shooting, an issue all last year, raised it's ugly head again as the Illini connected on only 40% of their attempts from the charity stripe at the 20 minute point. "We average like 75-80% in practice….I don't know what's going on in games," said Randle. "Chester's going so fast, I'll bet if you put a stopwatch on him, at the free throw line, that sucker doesn't touch his hands for more than a second. It's just amazing. And Richard Semrau, the referee handed it to him, and he just batted it…it was like volleyball," said Coach Weber.

The second half was more of the same. After forcing 13 turnovers in the first half, the Illini defense stayed active, disrupting the Governor offense into 12 additional turnovers, and holding Austin Peay to 22% shooting and an abysmal 9% from behind the arc. The Illini offense didn't back down, using runs of 11-2 and 19-5 to extend their lead all the way through the end of the game, when the 45 point margin of victory was also the largest lead.

"Í still think we can get better defensively," said Weber. "They're taking some pride in it. I've kinda challenged them to want it, to love it, to make it be the thing that everybody talks about. We made some shots, so it made us look a little better offensively. You take care of the ball a little more, and shoot some free throws, and it's perfection, nearly. I'm glad it's not, cause then I can have something to yell about tomorrow at practice."

Pruitt finished as the second-highest scorer with 13 points. Sophomore point guard Chester Frazier had a rough scoring night, going 1-5 from the field and 5-10 from the free throw line for 6 points, but dished out 8 assists to lead the team.

Freshman forward Richard Semrau and redshirt freshman CJ Jackson made their Illini debuts in the opening half, and fellow freshman center Brian Carlwell decided to bypass a potential redshirt year, and made his first appearance in the second half. Carlwell quickly made his presence known with two resounding dunks, which brought the sellout crowd at Assembly Hall to their feet. Carlwell also led the team with 6 rebounds in his 11 minutes.

Calvin Brock and Warren Carter took over the small forward duties as Randle only played 9 minutes, and contributed 6 points each. "Brian thought he tweaked it a little bit on a dunk, so we'll see how he feels tomorrow. I think he scared himself a little bit, we told him to get loosened up at halftime, and if you can't really go, it's not worth it, so we held him out the second half," said Coach Weber.

The Illini face Jackson State on Wednesday night at the Assembly Hall, the second in a string of 8 games in 15 days to start the season.


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