Illini Wonk
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
  Illini get huge win at Wisconsin
For the second year in a row, the Illinois Fighting Illini went into the Kohl Center and emerged with a win. While it was definitely more fun to end a 38 game home winning streak than extend a two game losing streak, this year's win was much more significant in the race for the Big Ten conference title.

With both teams entering the game 5-2 in conference play, the win puts Illinois alone on top of the standings with half of their conference games behind them. The other two conference teams at 5-2 are Iowa and Michigan. Tomorrow night Iowa is at Purdue and Michigan goes to Penn State, so the lead may not last long but it's a lead and we'll take it for a day.

Very solid games were logged by every starter expect Shaun Pruitt, who never got into a rhythm and finished with three points on 1-5 shooting and 1-3 from the free throw line. Dee Brown had a solid effort with 16 points and 7 assists. James Augustine may have only had 7 points and 9 rebounds, but it was undeniable that the Illini were a better team with him on the floor. Jamar Smith, apparently forgetting that freshman aren't supposed to play well on the road in this conference, contributed 12 points in 26 minutes off the bench without missing a shot or a free throw or committing a turnover. Frazier gave some good minutes, but Smith provided the only points off the bench for the Illini.

But for this blogger, two other starters shared player of the game honors: Brian Randle and Rich McBride. Randle did everything. He put up a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds, with 7 of those rebounds coming on the offensive end. He also drew the defensive assignment on Alando Tucker for most of the game.

McBride had his second consecutive excellent game, scoring 16 points on 5-10 shooting, 4-6 from behind the three-point line. It was McBride's three-pointers in the first half that really carried the Illini and gave them the half-time lead that they never relinquished.

The game was a game of runs. Wisconsin jumped out to a 6-0 lead by making their first two three-point tries (they would only make one of their next 18) before the Illini responded with a 7-0 run to take their first lead just over four minutes into the game. Then, Augustine went to the bench with his second foul and the Badgers came back with an 18-6 run of their own, grabbing a 24-13 (their largest of the game) just over half-way through the first half. In a gutsy coaching move, Bruce Weber brought Augustine back into the game as the Illini ran off 19 straight points over the next eight minutes and closed the first half with a 34-28 lead.

In the first 3.5 minutes of the second half, the Illini pushed that lead to 39-29 on a three-pointer from Dee Brown. But just as Illinois was threatening to pull away, Wisconsin closed the gap to two points and, while trailing 44-42, had a three-pointer from Ray Nixon that barely rimmed out. The Illini then went on a 11-1 run to take a 55-43 lead and were never threatened again. Despite shooting only 56 percent from the free-throw line on the game, the Illini made all six in the last 2:18 to seal the game.

Despite the comparable final margin, a few bounces here or there could have impacted the outcome. Augustine could have committed his third foul when entering the game mid-way through the first half. Nixon's three-pointer almost gave the Badgers the lead mid-way through the second.

But once again, it was Illinois' defense and rebounding that really won this contest. They really prevented Wisconsin from executing in their offensive sets, holding the Badgers to 35.6 percent from the floor. Illinois also outrebounded Wisconsin 43-28.

In his regular post-game blog post, Mark Tupper said: A team looking for a signature victory now has one. And a team struggling for confidence on the road after losing at both Iowa and Indiana has that, too. Believe this: The rest of the Big Ten took notice Tuesday night and Illinois has now raised its stock in the quest to win a third straight outright Big Ten title.

The win made the Illini the first team to reach 20 wins on the season. Next up, Illinois welcomes Penn State to Assembly Hall for a late game on Saturday night. For more news on this game, click here.
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