Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Indiana 43; Illinois 51

Imagine that. Illinois actually WON a game in which they had a second half lead. For those still holding out hope that the Illini have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament game, this was pretty much a must win. Pay not attention to the fact that they beat an overrated Indiana team (any national ranking for Indiana is an over-ranking). The Illini had to beat a ranked team, and they had to prove to themselves that they can close a team out when leading in the second half.

Remember when the Illini were fun to watch? Hell, even when they had a rotating line of butchers at small forward earlier in the decade, they still had exciting guys who could bring you out of your seat. This year's team is just kind of boring.

As the score indicates, the Illini did it with defense. They held Indiana to only five points in a fourteen minute stretch that started halfway through the first half. They held Indiana to 20 points in the second half, and six of those were in the final minute when the game had already been decided.

Sean Pruitt had big night on the boards with 13 rebounds to go with his ten points. Rich McBride has responded to the criticism by catching fire lately, adding 15 points last night, including a couple of big three pointers that stretched the lead out to eight points, a lead they would never relinquish. Fortunately, he has stepped up as Jamar Smith continues to slump, due in no small part to his injuries. Since going 6-14 for 17 points against Michigan on January 3rd, he's been awful, 11% from the field, and 7% from three. he's four for his last 37, including just 2-28 from beyond the arc. Ouch.**

The Illini shot 65% from the line, roughly on par with what they've done all season. Warren Carter was 6-6, but Sean Pruitt (who only shot three free throws), was 0-3, while Chet Frazier was 3-7. Any wonder why they've had a hard time holding leads?

I wouldn't call this a signature win, but it is a stepping stone. Perhaps they can build on it and go on a little run. If Jamar Smith gets his stroke back, and McBride keeps shooting well, and Randle gets healthy, they have a chance to go on a winning streak that could put them in tournament contention. But they pretty much need ALL of those things to happen.

**I swear I didn't read Mark Tupper's blog before I posted that. Seriously. But it's word for word what he wrote (although I wrote 'beyond' and he wrote 'behind') so I'll change it.

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