Seniors Shine During Their Last Dance

The media circus around the Illinois basketball team has spent the last week focused on everything but basketball. The retirement of Chief Illiniwek, Senior Night, the ongoing legal and health issues associated with the accident involving Jamar Smith and Brian Carlwell threatened to overshadow the fact the Illinois had a chance to reach 20 wins for the 8th straight year.

The Illini stay in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid with a victory over Michigan at the Assembly Hall Wednesday night.

Luckily for the Illini, their players stayed focused on the court.

Seniors Rich McBride and Warren Carter provided just enough offense, and the Illini defense, a staple all year long, came through as Illinois defeated the Wolverines 54-42, and Illinois continued their late-season resurgence that's seen them win six of their last eight games.

Carter scored 18, including a career-high three three-pointers, and McBride added 11 for Illinois (20-9, 8-6), and the Illini defense forced Michigan (18-10, 6-7) into 20 turnovers and held the Wolverines scoreless for over 7 minutes in building an 11 point second half lead that Michigan could never overcome.

"I thought both teams struggled offensively," said Michigan coach Tommy Amaker. "I thought the difference was our turnovers and our inability to keep them off the backboard. I thought they did an outstanding job of getting on the glass. The seniors really stepped forward and made some big plays."

Illinois came out with what seemed to be too much emotion, fueled by a crowd that was buzzing from the minute the doors of Assembly Hall opened. Illinois played much of the first half as if they were more interested in seeing Chief Illiniwek's last dance than they were in winning the game, missing their first 5 shots from the field and turning the ball over 4 times in the first 6 minutes of the game, and allowing Michigan to get out to an early 10-4 lead.

"I think Warren was a little hyper early," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "He got tired quick, took a couple questionable shots, but then settled down and played, against a good team, maybe as good a basketball game as he's had since he's been here."

The teams traded buckets for most of the half, with Illinois using a 7-0 run to erase the early Michigan lead, and another 10-2 run late in the half to build a 23-19 margin.

The second half was the Rich McBride show, with McBride netting 9 of his 11 points in the first six minutes after the break and pushing the Illini to a 13 point lead. Michigan could never close to any closer than 9 as the Illinois defense took over and held the Wolverines to 10 points over the last 10 minutes of the half, while the Illini hit 5 of 7 rom behind the arc to protect their lead.

Illinois held Michigan to 37% shooting, the 16th Illini opponent to shoot under 40% from the field, and the Wolverines were the 6th Big Ten opponent to score under 50 points against the Illini.

InsideIllini.com will have a full story on Thursday about the last performance by Chief Illiniwek, including an exclusive picture gallery of the last dance, and quotes from coaches and players about Senior Night and the retirement of the Chief.


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