Jan. 25, 2005
MADISON, Wis. — Madison was the capital of the college basketball world Tuesday night. It was full of excitement galore as the Grateful Red fans tried to cheer on their Badgers to a 39th consecutive home win. Illinois was going for its 20th straight victory. Something had to give.
In the end, the resiliency of coach Bruce Weber's Illini — coming back from an eight-point deficit in the second half — got Illinois to the winner's circle. Those kids wouldn't go away after Wisconsin went on a 12-0 run to build a 56-48 lead.
Then Illinois (20-0, 6-0 Big Ten) had a look in its eyes and fought back vs. Wisconsin (13-4, 4-2 Big Ten) like a true champion. There was unbelievable intensity and emotion all night, and the Orange Krush prevailed 75-65. The final score didn't indicate how close this really was. It truly was a great college basketball game.
Now the question is, can Illinois run the table in the Big Ten and go undefeated?
It was a thrilling night as both the Illini and Badgers played with pride and emotion, representing their respective schools so well.
The athleticism and quickness of the Illini made a big difference, as did free-throw shooting down the stretch. The ability of the Illini to convert at the foul line (17-of-20) was a major plus. And they made big plays in the halfcourt offense in the last 10 minutes when they took over the game.
Senior center Jack Ingram provided a big spark for Illinois. Ingram hit a couple of key 3-pointers in the second half. Suddenly the bench provided the energy needed for the comeback.
Illinois' guard trio of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head plays so well together. They were a big part of the Illini offense once again. Head led all scorers with 18 points, and Williams is so unselfish, maybe even too unselfish. It's so tough to pressure those guys because of their quickness and ballhandling ability.
I was thrilled to see Wisconsin's fans give their team a standing ovation after the 38-game Kohl Center winning streak was snapped. Those fans are a class act and are clearly appreciative of the accomplishments of this Wisconsin squad. Those Badgers played their hearts out. It's incredible to think that this was their first Big Ten home loss under coach Bo Ryan (now 26-1).
Now the question is, can Illinois run the table in the Big Ten and go undefeated? I don't think anyone will beat the Illini at home in Champaign, where the Orange Krush fans go wild. They already have escaped with a tight 73-68 home win over Iowa on Thursday. That five-point margin is the closest any opponent has come to Illinois this season.
If Weber's team can win in the Izzone next week at East Lansing (Tuesday, ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) — and beating Michigan State is never easy there — then I think there's a good chance the Illini will duplicate the feat of Saint Joseph's from last season ... going perfect through the regular season!
For now, the fans in Champaign are celebrating big-time, baby! Being 20-0 in this day and age is something truly special.
Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979. Send a question to Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.