Illini Pass First Real Test…..Barely

HOFFMAN ESTATES, IL-After Tuesday's drubbing of Savannah State at Assembly Hall, Bruce Weber commented that he'd know a lot more about his Illinois team after the next four games. If Friday's 51-49 victory over the Miami (OH) Redhawks in the semifinal round of the Chicago Invitational Challenge was any indication, the Illini still have a lot to learn.

"I'm not sure we truly deserved to win," said Weber. "But we found a way at the end. They just outsmarted us. As the game wore on, they got tired, and we made some plays down the stretch. We survived tonight." Miami led nearly the entire game, and Illinois came back from 16 points down to take the lead on Warren Carter's jumper in the lane with 1:20 left, and after Miami forward Nathan Peavy hit a short jumper with :43 seconds left, Illini point guard Chester Frazier hit driving layup with 18 seconds remaining to give Illinois a one point lead, and Carter hit a free throw with 2 seconds remaining to ice the game. "It was do or die, and I took it. I worked out good for me," said Frazier "Chester made a huge play," said Weber. "It was not an easy shot by any means.

Frazier's heroics were badly needed. Miami (2-3) came out hot, and Illinois' (6-0) defense broke down possession after possession, allowing Miami to score 20 points in the paint in the first half, mainly on backdoor cuts and quick drives into the lane by Tim Pollitz, who had 9 points at the break on 4 of 7 shooting. Miami outhustled the Illini on the boards as well, nearly outrebounding Illinois 2-1 in the first half. On the offensive end, the Illinois motion offense was stagnant, and Illinois struggled from the field, connecting on only 33% of their shots. The Illini looked outclassed and confused as they trailed at the half, 33-26.

"We dribbled too much in the first half," said Weber about the lackluster effort over the first 20 minutes. "No one screened, we didn't get any type of movement, we didn't execute our plays, so it didn't look very good."

"In the second half, our defense was the key. We got a couple of big defensive stops," said Frazier. The Redhawks, who shot a scorching 58% from the field in the first half, cooled off considerably, aided by a much more active Illinois defense. The Illini also shut down Pollitz, holding him to 1-8 shooting in the second half, and held Miami to 3 points in the last 10:30 of the game while mounting their comeback. Redshirt sophomore CJ Jackson drew the defensive assignment on Pollitz for much of the second half. "CJ made some nice defensive plays that helped us at a key time," said Weber.

"Games like this bring you together as a team," said Weber. "I think every guy, you can go down the line….somebody made a key play down the stretch.I would have liked for it to be pretty, but we found a way to win."

The Illini were led in scoring and rebounding by Shaun Pruitt, who notched his second straight double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Frazier was the only other Illini in double figures with 10. Rich McBride, in his second game back from suspension, hit 3-8 3-pointers and finished with 9. Peavey led the Redhawks with 22 points, and also had 11 rebounds.

Sophomore shooting guard Jamar Smith, who is recovering from an ankle sprain suffered in the first game of the year, was dressed for tonight's game, and participated in pregame warmups, but did not play."When we were stinking it up 7 or 8 minutes into the game, Al (Martindale, IL trainer) said ‘Use him', but I wasn't going to put him in. If we lose the game, we lose the game, but I don't want to lose him for the season."

The Illini will face Bradley in the championship game of the Challenge Saturday night at 7:30. Bradley advanced to the championship by beating Rutgers 101-72. "It's gonna be a tough game tomorrow. We're gonna have to come ready to play. We need to be ready to defend the three," said Weber.

Approximately 1800 tickets remain for tomorrow's game at the new Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. Tickets are available at the box office.

Game notes:

-Illinois missed Brian Randle badly tonight. Randle would have matched up well with Nathan Peavey, who pretty much torched Carter, Arnold, and McBride. He got to the lane at will against the slower big guys, and shot over the top of McBride.

-Richard Semrau had the flu and did not play. CJ Jackson got his minutes, and looked strong at the defensive end of the court. He disappeared on offense, though.

-The Sears Center is a nice venue. Apparently they don't have the scoreboard figured out quite yet, since none of the player or team stats were being displayed during the game. It was obvious Illinois wasn't shooting well, but you couldn't tell HOW bad it was during the game.

-Frazier's driving layup to win the game was eerily Dee Brown-esque….except for the fact that he hit it with his left hand.

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