Illini Survive Scare

Shock. Awe. Despair. Early in the first half, that is what most Illinois fans were feeling when Jackson State took a double digit lead on the Illini in Assembly Hall. Then the Illini defense clamped down on Jackson State, and the Illini pulled away for a 76-55 win to up their record to 2-0 this season.

When the schedule was printed, the only thing that stood out about Illinois' second game of the season against Jackson State was that it was that the Illini were playing a team from the same school that produced Walter Payton. On Wednesday night, Walter Payton was the last person from Jackson State that was on the minds of Illinois fans. The Illini were playing without their three leading scorers as Jamar Smith and Brian Randle were sitting out with injuries, and Rich McBride was serving his second game of a four game suspension for his DUI.

On Monday night, the Illini dominated Austin Peay thanks to a smothering defense. On Wednesday night, that smothering defense disappeared in the first half, and the Illini were all out of the sorts. Jackson State took a lead early, and things looked worse for the Illini men's basketball team than the weather outside in Champaign on a dreary Wednesday evening.

Thanks to some hot shooting from Jackson State, some bad shooting from the Illini, and some general overall poor play in the first ten minutes of the first half, the Illini saw themselves down double digits with ten minutes gone in the first half. Playing without McBride, Randle, and Smith, Bruce Weber probably wondered where his team was going to get the extra something to make the comeback in the opening game of the Chicago Invitational Challenge.

That was when sophomore Chester Frazier stepped up for the Fighting Illini and willed the Illini to be tied with Jackson State at halftime. After what one can only assume was a spirited half time speech from Bruce Weber, the Illini came out and looked more like the team they were expected to be tonight. The defense clamped down on Jackson State in the second half, and the offense moved much better getting more open shots, especially for Shaun Pruitt and Calvin Brock.

As upset as the coaching staff had to have been at the Illini's effort and play in the first half, they had to have been as happy with the team's effort and resilience in the second half. Yes, the Illini turned the ball over too many times. Yes, they did not clamp down on the offensive boards, allowing Jackson State to pull down ten offensive rebounds. But, in the end the Illini won the game, and there were some signs that the backup players will be able to play key minutes once the starters return.

The star of Wednesday night may have been sophomore Calvin Brock. Brock had not seen much time on the court for the Illini before this season when he was forced into the lineup with the injury to Brian Randle and Rich McBride's suspension. Brock received the first start of his Illinois career on Wednesday night and played all but two minutes. He scored 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting and pulled down 6 rebounds. Brock has been much more under control in the first two games this season than he was last year, and if his play continues like this, he should be a staple in the Illini rotation even when all three players return.

The question that I had before the game started tonight was whether or not the Illini would show a more post-oriented offense with their three leading perimeter scorers on the bench. The Illini definitely did get the ball inside more on Wednesday night than they have in the past, leading to Warren Carter and Shaun Pruitt's 16 and 15 points, respectively.


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