Saturday, March 04, 2006

Winning On The Road

I don't care how maddeningly disappointing Michigan State has been this year. Going into East Lansing and beating a Tom Izzo team is never anything to sniff at, especially when it comes on the Spartans' senior night. The Izzodome gets wild. I'm just happy to report that no Illini players were confronted by drunken Michigan State students during pregame warmups, which they've been known to do up there.

When the Big Ten schedule makers scheduled this game for the final weekend of the regular season, I imagine they thought the Big Ten title would be on the line. It hasn't worked out that way, but the game still featured the conference's two preeminent teams of the past several seasons. So there was that.

And you didn't really think Dee Brown and James Augustine were going to lose their final regular season game in the Illini uniform, did you? Get real. I know they must still be basking in the glow of passing the legendary Nick "Big Stiff" Smith as the winningest players in Illini history, but they were able to concentrate just long enough to focus on this game.

Just as in the first encounter between the teams, Brown went nutty, hitting four straight three-pointers early in the second half to break the game open and silence the crowd. Sit down. Shut up.

A few minutes later, perhaps the most telling sequence of the afternoon occurrred when Rich McBride shot a second-half airball and was immediately berated with a lively airball chant. The crowd was really let him have it. Next Illini possession McBride gets the ball. Airball chant again. He gives it up again, then gets gets it back for a second time. Airball chant again. He gives it up again. Then finally, he gets it back for the third time of the possession, and as the airball chant reaches a crescendo, nails a three-pointer. Nothing but net. Sit down. Shut up.

Late in the game, as Michigan State had just made a couple of buckets and looked ready to make that one last charge you knew was coming, and the crowd was begging for it, Augustine was called for a foul on a screen that was patently ridiculous. Bad, bad call. The tide was coming dangerously close to turning. Even Bill Raftery was doing the whole I-can't-be-too-critical-of-the-refs-on-national-TV-but-that-call-was-garbage routine. So what did Augustine do? He stole the ensuing inbounds pass and went the length of the court untouched for a dunk. Sit down. Shut up.

It was also nice to see Jamar Smith hit some big shots. After lighting it up earlier in the season and being compared to guys like Eddie Johnson and Vinnie Johnson, the freshman had been in a slump. He's been struggling, but if his stroke is back, that could prove huge. It was also nice to see Smith and Chester Frazier alternating offensive and defensive possessions down the stretch - two freshmen pitching in to do the job of one man. Works for me.

So now the Illini has reached the 25-win plateau for the sixth straight season. Nice.

Following Wednesday's win at Minnesota, who is also tough at home, the Illini has now closed the regular season with back-to-back road wins, a feat that has been an achilles year this season.

Good vibes heading into the posteason are never a bad thing. With the Big Ten tourney looming and the NCAA after that, the real work is only beginning. The Illini can, however, feel good about the last week of the regular season.

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