Game Notes: Illinois-Chicago vs. No. 14 Illinois
UIC pulls a major upset at the United Center.
by Quinn Peterson
While Saturday’s matchup between UIC and No. 14 Illinois took place just minutes from the Flames’ campus, it was the Illini fans who turned out in droves, draping much of Chicago’s United Center in orange. Unfortunately for them, the wrong University of Illinois won, as U of I at Chicago pulled off the upset, beating U of I at Urbana-Champaign 57-54.
The win was UIC’s second ever over Illinois and the first in 20 years.
“This was a players win, the players got this W,” said UIC head coach Howard Moore. “I can’t take credit for it other than just trying to keep them calm.”
Despite coming in as victors of seven in a row, the Illini looked anything but that in the game’s opening minutes. Behind some sharp shooting, UIC jumped out to an early 14-5 lead. Senior guard Robo Kreps led the way for the Flames, knocking down three 3′s to get things going.
“I knew coming out here tonight I needed to be a leader for my team and attack on the offensive end,” said Kreps.
The Illini, on the other hand, were sluggish and out of sync, struggling from the field. Point guard Demetri McCamey, Illinois’ leading scorer exemplified the poor shooting that persisted all afternoon as he started just 1-for-5 from the field.
“Defensively, we just did a great job on their guys,” said Moore. “Trying to limit McCamey is a tough, tough deal….today it was a great job by Zavion Neely [and Robo Kreps] trying to set the tone, and just trying to slow Meechi down and not allow him to get going.”
Illinois picked up the intensity a bit after the first media timeout, applying full-court pressure to boost their sense of urgency. Defensively they were much better, holding UIC scoreless for more than four minutes at one point. Offensively they remained a mess, however, shooting a lowly 2-for-12 early on in the first half. UIC’s shift to a 1-3-1 would do the trick in keeping Illinois off balance.
“We tried to throw a little curveball in there today with the 1-3-1 zone and it was pretty effective,” said the first-year head coach. “I thought it really got them stagnated and put them in a position where they weren’t really sure what to do and where to get their shots.”
“I have kind of a good advantage of being in the Big Ten for the past five years and just having memories of how Northwestern had some success with their 1-3-1 against the Illini.”
Senior forward Paul Carter also stepped up for the Flames, ringing off six straight to keep his team energized and sitting in front as Illinois looked to make a push near the end of the half. The Illini managed to hover around. D.J. Richardson helped drive the tempo, spearheading the late push and two McCamey free throws allowed the Illini to break even and head into halftime with things tied at 28.
As it looked like Illinois may have found the tipping point, UIC opened the second half the same as they did the first and a 10-2 Flames run placed them comfortably back in the driver’s seat, leading 38-30.
“[They] really controlled the first five minutes of each half which probably really determined the game, because each time we have to fight back,” said Weber.
“I have been alarmed…Last week after the Gonzage game, how we played, our approach to practice caught up with up. I don’t know if it’s ever good to lose, but hopefully if anything it will change our approach to practice.”
“We just lost our sense of urgency,” added McCamey. “Guys were earning minutes and fighting, battling, pushing each other and going at it. Now its a little bit soft and relaxed so we gotta pick that up.”
There was no better proof of how bad things were for the Illini than forward Mike Davis’ botched dunk at the 16:50 mark. A bad outing for the team in general, it was particularly rough for Davis and center Mike Tisdale, his partner-in-crime. The two bigs, both starters, combined for just 2-for-11 shooting and five rebounds.
“It’s disappointing. 1-for-5, 1-for-6,” said Weber. “Most of those are all shots around the paint and we need them to make baskets and play strong. It’s something that we’ve talked about, worked on, everyday we do stuff with the pads and finish in the paint.”
Freshman forward Meyers Leonard brought some much-needed energy however, and a huge block — though a charge was called anyway — gave the team and the crowd the jolt that had been lacking..
Riding that momentum, Illinois clamped down on defense, holding UIC scoreless for 10 minutes. Amidst the stout defensive segment by the Illini, a D.J. Richardson three gave them their first lead of the day and a dunk by Leonard truly got things rocking.
Kreps finally broke ended drought at the 5:30 mark, and despite their offensive woes, they — namely Kreps and Carter — were able to keep the Flames within striking distance. A Carter jumper tied things at 51 with 2:51 to play, and the remainder of the game would be decided at the free throw line.
McCamey split two. Illinois 52-51.
UIC center Darrin Williams knocks down both of his. UIC, 53-52.
“I’ve practiced a lot of free throws lately. “He [Moore] just told me to take my time and breath at the line.”
McCamey sinks two. Illinois 54-53.
On the ensuing possession, Williams got a tip-in — the only field goal of this finale — and put the Flames back in front 55-54.
After calling timeout, Richardson, Brandon Paul and McCamey all came up short on scoring opportunities and two more UIC free throws would seal the deal.
“We can only blame ourself,” said McCamey. “Give credit to UIC. They came and hung and fought. Even when we took the lead they didn’t put their heads down, they came back battling, made some plays down the stretch and we didn’t.
“We had lots of opportunities and just never made plays,” Weber reflected. “They took the game to us and made plays down the stretch.”
Kreps led the Flames with 15, while Carter added 11. McCamey and Richardson led the Illini with 16 and 13, respectively.
Illinois will look to get things turned around quickly with a game Missouri coming up on Wednesday.