CHICAGO -- Ready for a knock-down, drag-out, clichéd basketball-as-boxing metaphor? Here it comes: Gonzaga's 85-83 win over a scrappy, streaky Illinois team at the United Center Saturday felt more like a fistfight than a basketball game. (Told you that metaphor was going to be clichéd.)
So it's probably fitting that, after Gonzaga center Robert Sacre scored 19 hard-fought interior points on the way to the Bulldogs' win, he compared his style, and his team's, to the sweet science.
"You've got to be the aggressor," Sacre said. "In any sport, no matter whether it's basketball or boxing, you're going to make plays if you're aggressive."
The Bulldogs were that. Sacre and forward Elias Harris had their way with the Illini on the interior Saturday, as Sacre posted an efficient 7-for-9 and Harris went 7-for-11. Harris grabbed 16 rebounds to go along with his 19 points, and together the duo knocked out -- see? boxing! -- Illinois center Mike Tisdale, whose foul issues kept him out of the game for all but 11 minutes.
That combination, along with some hot shooting from guard Steven Gray, gave Gonzaga a 21-point first-half lead. Illinois stormed back before and after the half, eventually taking an eight-point lead in the second half. Gonzaga slowly chipped away at that lead and finally settled the game in overtime -- with a hard-fought interior layup by -- who else? -- Harris.
The loss is especially disappointing for Illinois, which moves to 9-5 after receiving top 25 plaudits before the season began.
"It sucks," coach Bruce Weber said. "It's just sad. I hate to lose. And we had a great crowd and a great atmosphere and you don't want to let them down."
Asked how he would describe his team's first 14 games, Illini sub Dominique Keller was nearly as blunt as his coach.
"Disappointing," Keller said. "Disappointing."
It's easy to see why Keller and the Illini feel that way. Merely one game into the Big Ten season, the Illini already have several bad losses on their docket, particularly to Georgia and Utah, not to mention a 13-point loss to Missouri on Dec. 23. Gonzaga is a more respectable loss, but for a team that planned on making the NCAA tournament in March, 9-5 is not a good place to be.
Weber's team has struggled with its starts, to the point that the seventh-year coach said he "probably needs to change the starting lineup," hoping a change will solve the early holes Illinois continues to find itself in.
"It's a major dilemma," Weber, clearly exasperated, said.
Double that disappointment with the proof, plain as day, that Illinois can play much better -- see Saturday's bookend comeback, for example, a stretch of game in which the Illini looked nearly unbeatable -- and you've got a recipe for angst. This Illinois team should be better. Illinois fans feel it. Weber clearly feels it. And his players, perhaps more than anyone, can feel it, too.
In the meantime, Weber's team is likely to keep struggling with deep post teams. Whether the Illini's young guards have enough talent to pick up the slack, and to see them through the team's strange bouts of incompetence, is as yet unanswered. Gonzaga, on the other hand, looks primed to stay in the top 25 for the foreseeable future. The Zags are not perfect, but Mark Few's team is balanced and smart and, as they showed in a very hostile United Center environment, they know how to take a punch.
As far as boxing matches go, though, Saturday's was a good one. The 20,000 Illini fans in the building, disappointed as they were, would almost have to agree. Almost.