Late Flurry Not Enough, Illini Lose To WKU

The Fighting Illini basketball team lost to Western Kentucky in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 76-72. Playing without emotional leader Chester Frazier, the Illini were tight from the importance of the matchup and couldn't keep up with the quickness and maturity of a fine Hilltopper team.

Speaking for Illinois coach Bruce Weber, assistant Jay Price was proud of the Illini season despite the loss.

"We were proud of what they did all year. Early in the season, there wasn't a lot of high expectations. But we had high expectations for our guys, and they did a great job getting here. They didn't give up tonight. If we could have made some plays earlier and had a little more sense of urgency earlier, perhaps things could have turned out different."

Western Kentucky held a commanding lead at 68-51 late in the game before Illinois went to a full court press and began cutting into the lead. They outscored WKU 21-8 at the end but couldn't overcome their failings earlier in the game. It was a valiant comeback that proved they were not quitters, but it was too little too late.

Seniors Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock played with great intensity throughout, wanting desperately to continue their college careers. They both may have played their greatest games as Illini in their finale. Meacham ended with 24 points, 3 assists and 4 steals, while Brock had a double-double with 14 points and 10 boards. Price praised them afterward.

"Obviously, our seniors gave us a great run. Trent really played his heart out, and Brock probably had his career high in rebounds. It was disappointing Chester couldn't play. It would have made a difference because he's a pressure defensive guy. But beyond all that, the fact that Chester helped get us back to this and then couldn't play, that was disappointing. But we're real proud of the team and proud of the season we had.

But the younger players seemed lost at times. Mike Tisdale was scoreless and had only one rebound in 19 minutes. Demetri McCamey had 10 points and four assists, but he was 0-5 from the three point line and matched his assists with 4 turnovers. He lacked the bounce to defend the quick WKU guards. Mike Davis added 12 points and 9 boards but had only 9 shots on the night.

Western Kentucky worked players open for easy shots in the first half on their way to a 9 point halftime lead. As Price stated afterward, their three point streaks had a devastating effect on Illini confidence.

"The one thing they did early was make open shots. It seemed like they made every three they took. They didn't really, but they made them in bunches. They made four in a row first half and three in a row second half, and that's seven of their nine. They're a good team, and I think their experience last year helped them out this year.

"They gave us some problems with their ball screening. They were getting wide open three pointers, and that was difficult to stop."

Frazier would have helped a great deal with his defense against WKU's gunners. But more than anything, his leadership and calming influence were missed badly.

It was obvious from early in the season the Illini needed Chester's leadership and calming influence on the floor. Even when he would sit for a couple minutes, the team lost cohesiveness and confidence. So despite a great effort to defeat Michigan in the first round of the Big 10 Tournament, Illinois youngsters were not confident enough to play at peak efficiency in Frazier's absence.

The Illini wanted to prove they could win without Frazier. But more than anything, they wanted to prove the prognosticators wrong for picking Western Kentucky in an upset. So the loss was especially embarrassing.

"The disappointing part is we were predicted to lose and we wanted to show everybody," Price reminded. "But still we are very excited about the season."

Western Kentucky made the Sweet Sixteen last year, and they were by far the more relaxed and confident team. They won their conference and were accustomed to winning, while Illinois struggled down the stretch, losing 3 of its last 4 games prior to the NCAA Tournament.

The Hilltoppers are a quality team, as evidenced by all five starters ending in double figures on the night. Steffphon Pettigrew led the way with 17 points, while Sergio Kerusch added 14 points and 12 rebounds and A.J. Slaughter also scored 14. Center Jeremy Evans added 10 points and 4 blocked shots, and point guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez scored 11 points, dished out 6 assists and added 7 boards.

Jay Price summed up the game and the 24-10 season.

"This is a different stage, a different feel. Next year, we won't sneak up on people. The difficult thing is, we've got to replace Trent, who played well this year; Chester defensively was sort of our soul; and Calvin Brock did a heck of a job this year and really played well tonight with a double-double.

"We've got a lot of new guys coming in, and we look forward to them helping us. But they'll be new, so it will be a learning experience for them also.

"We were very hard and demanding, and we became one of the best defensive teams in the country. We got into the polls. We've got the thing going now in the right direction. We just need to keep building on that. The Illini Nation is so big, and so vast. The fans at home came out in droves and supported us, and I think there are bright, bright times ahead for us in the future."

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