Smith's Return Spurs Illini Comeback

HOFFMAN ESTATES, IL- Jamar Smith was supposed to be out 4 weeks with a high ankle sprain suffered less than two weeks ago in the Illini's home opener against Austin Peay. But Smith's powers of recuperation appear to be as quick as the release on his jumper, and his return to action Saturday night helped Illinois recover from a slow start and defeat Bradley 75-71.

"Last night (the doctors) said he could play. They kind of threw it at me in the middle of the game. I didn't want it to be an emotional decision," said Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. "We talked this morning. They felt he was healed enough that he wouldn't hurt it. First thing this morning Jamar told me ‘Coach, I wanna play. I want to be able to go home.' I think it was a good decision."

As has been their pattern this year, the Illini came out slow in the first half. Bradley used pressure defense and 4 of 4 three point shooting from Jeremy Crouch to jump out to a 26-16 lead midway through the half. the Braves forced Illinois into 9 turnovers and grabbed 5 steals, and had 10 points off turnovers as they took a 38-32 lead into the break. Illinois had success when they got the ball inside as Shaun Pruitt and Warren Carter combined for 16 of the Illini's 32 points, but the Illini struggles from the free throw line continued, as they combined to miss 7 of 8 attempts in the initial stanza.

"We didn't do a great job in the first half of communicating, and it screwed us up. We tried to trap, and we didn't communicate, and we screwed it up," said Weber. "Today we were more ready to play, but they just come at you. They were shooting those threes, and we were like "Oh, come on"! In the middle of the first half, we didn't let Shaun touch the ball and that's when they broke away from us."

Bradley extended their lead to 9 early in the second period, as Illinois got away from attempting to trap at the top of the key and started playing a switching defense to try to slow the Bradley outside game. Bradley's guards simply drove past Illinois defenders and hit 4 consecutive layups. The Illini used a 22-7 run midway through the second half to overcome their slow start, and took the lead for good on a Smith 3-pointer with just over 5 minutes to go in the game. The Illini hit 9-12 free throws down the stretch to ice the game.

"Rich (McBride) did a great job on Crouch in the second half," said coach Weber. "He was 4-4 from three in the first half. We did a good job of nullifying him, and Rich was a big part of that. "

"When they started making their run, we took some quick shots," said Bradley head coach Jim Les. "I thought the crowd and the situation of them wanting to win so bad speeded us up and took away from our effectiveness. Give Illinois credit…it's a good basketball team. Whenever we missed a shot or missed a layup they took advantage of it."

The Illini were led in scoring by Warren Carter with 17 points. Chester Frazier came up big in the second half with 2 big 3-pointers in the Illini comeback, and finished with 10 points and 11 assists. Smith finished with 14 points, and Shaun Pruitt just missed a third consecutive double-double with 16 points and 9 rebounds. Bradley got 17 points form Will Franklin, 16 from Daniel Ruffin, 12 from Crouch, and 10 from J.J. Tauai. Bradley, who came into the game shooting over 50% from 3-point land, struggled against Illinois' defense in the second half and finished the game at 38%.

Game notes:

-Shaun Pruitt, Warren Carter, and Chester Frazier were named to the All-Tournament team. Frazier was named tournament MVP.

-Jamar looked like he was in pain after getting pulled down on a play midway through the second half. After the game, but before the trophy presentation, he was grimacing and had to sit down. Apparently he was cramping up.

-When asked about playing Illinois again, Jim Les had some pretty humorous comments: "If you can get Bruce to agree, we'll do that every year. I thought it was a great atmosphere, and it's what makes college basketball special. Bruce said he wouldn't do it…if you'd like to pressure him, feel free to do it. You've got my permission."

-Rich Semrau did not play again tonight, nor did CJ Jackson. Bradley was in a four guard offense most of the night, and even ran a five guard offense for the last couple of minutes. Don't read anything into the limited minutes by the big guys-this was NOT a matchup for the slow of foot.

-The officiating at this tournament was flat out bad. Illinois drew the same crew tonight that they had last night, and Bruce was on them HARD in the first half, for good reason. Lots of bad calls, lots of no calls, and they got an earful from both benches. One official finally told Bruce that he wasn't going to listen to him any more and told him to go away. Chris Spencer needs to invest in some better officials next time.

-Jamar is the vocal leader on this team. He was talking in the huddles, talking in the group meetings at the free throw line, and was the coach on the floor. The team looked a LOT better with him out there directing traffic.

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