Randle's Return Keys Illini Victory

CHICAGO, IL-Brian Randle's return to the Illinois lineup came just in time. With forward Warren Carter in foul trouble, and the UIC Flames refusing to go away, Randle picked up the slack to help lead the Illini to a 71-66 victory at the United Center in Chicago.

Randle, who has been out since the season-opening victory over Austin Peay and underwent surgery to fix a torn muscle in his groin, scored 9 points, grabbed 9 rebounds, and was credited officially with one blocked shot (although he got his hands on at least 3) in 16 minutes of action. "I felt a little off, but it was good to be back," said Randle. "I was very proud of his determination and his guts to come out and play the way he did," added Illinois head coach Bruce Weber.

Illinois needed every bit of help it could get against the Flames, who roared back from a 15 point halftime deficit to close the lead to as little as 2 points with 14 minutes left in the game, and, while Illinois never lost the lead from that point forward, the Flames never gave up, and whittled a late Illini 12 point lead down to 5, but could not get any closer before the end of the game.

"We're upset with ourselves for not coming out with the same intensity in the second half," said Illinois senior guard Rich McBride. "We've got to come out mentally prepared. We've got to mature as a team and come out ready to play."

The Illini again had trouble sustaining their efforts over 40 minutes. Like they did against Arizona, Illinois jumped to an early lead on the strength of strong outside shooting by Chester Frazier, Rich McBride, and Trent Meacham, and tenacious defense that held the Flames to 27% shooting. "You've got to play hard," said Weber. "I thought we did in the first half. Other than the first couple of minutes, I thought we took it too them and controlled the half, to be honest. The problem is that we should have been up 20 (points) at half. We just don't make smart plays. We do things we don't practice, we try to hit grand slams with nobody on base."

The Illini's strong first half was accomplished with little help from senior Warren Carter, the team's leading scorer. Carter picked up 2 fouls in only 7 minutes of play in the first half, and only had 2 points at the break. Carter's foul trouble brought Randle off the bench at the 12:48 mark of the first half. Randle's return was met with a standing ovation from the mainly orange-clad crowd. Randle wasted no time getting involved in the game, immediately pulling down a rebound, missing his first shot, and scored on a driving layup less than a minute after his return. Randle logged 6 minutes in the half, and the Illini went to the locker room with a comfortable 37-22 lead.

UIC came out and took the game directly to Illinois in the second half, led by Johan Stefanov and Othyus Jeffers, who were held in check in the first stanza. Jeffers scored 6 straight points, and Stefanov hit a pair of three point baskets as the Flames made their run to close the game to a 2 point differential. "After the first half, we had the option to start playing or get blown out," said Stefanov. "We started playing. In the first half, we weren't ready. In the second half, we came out and played."

Illinois ran the lead back up to 12 as Warren Carter finally got on track. Carter made a layup, pulled down a defensive rebound, and hit a 3-pointer in less than a minute, and Randle hit a pair of driving layups as the Illini started taking charge inside. The Flames TJ Gray hit a pair of 3's to keep the game close, but the Illini hit enough free throws down the stretch to maintain their cushion, and Josh Mayo missed back to back 3's at the end.

The Illini were led in scoring by McBride with 13 and Frazier with 10. Jeffers led the Flames with 16, Mayo added 13, and Stefanov and Gray each added 10.

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