Saturday, January 20, 2007

"Champaign is Like the Confederacy"

So said a native Chicagoan to me on Friday. No joke. He was talking about how he's confused by the Chicago-area's support for the University of Illinois' athletic programs because the city seems more culturally attuned (and is about as close) to Ann Arbor and Madison. I'm not going to plumb the depths of that comment, I'm just putting it out there.

Both this game, Wisconsin's 71-64 victory over Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (hereafter known as Shampoo-Banana), and the Northwestern victory last week, were very lose-able games. On the road, stuck in an ugly, sluggish game in an embarrassing venue against a persistent and organized but untalented foe (in Evanston), or playing in a 1980's space-ship, surrounded by thousands of pumpkin-clothed under-entertained downstate Illinoisians, where the home team is making absurd bank-three pointers and getting a career game from one of its main scorers (in this case, U of I's PF/C Shaun Pruitt). But somehow, this season (so far) we've been pulling stuff off. Today's game, for example.
We're down one with two minutes left, and we end up winning by seven. In order for that to happen, things need to break your way (get lucky) and people on your team need to step up (you need to be good).
Maybe we can break it down bit by bit.
(1) The Stiemer makes two free throws (stepping up, especially for someone who hasn't played much).
(2) The Fibs take nearly 35 seconds to miss a jump shot (stepping up defensively as a team). (3) That utterly crazy possession: Kam's three is blocked by Randle, so Alando jumps up and grabs the misdirected shot but a Illinois player is jumping with him. Alando falls to the floor with the ball in front of him, facing away from the basket. He either slides the ball along the floor to Kam, or the force of him falling just sends it that way. Kam grabs the ball, realizes all the conundrum has distracted the Illinois defenders and immediately drains a 16-foot jumper. Ridiculous. (Final verdict: lucky and stepping up, Alando was in the right place at the right time but both he and Kam made great plays.)
(4) Flowers gets called for an off the ball foul on the already spear-bald McBride. (unlucky) McBride makes only one free throw. (Lucky).
(5) Landry scores but gets called for the offensive foul immediately after shooting--basket counts, but Fibs get free throws at the other end. (Good but also unlucky)
(6) Randle makes one free throw before missing the other. (Lucky)
(7) After the miss, there's a scrum for the rebound, Alando grabs it, pirouettes along the baseline while being swarmed by Fibs, then makes a wonderful jump and pass around the defenders to get the ball to Kam, who is fouled while sprinting to the other end. (Another example of stepping up and making important plays.)
(8) Kam makes both free throws. (good.) We're now up five with 30 seconds left.
(9) Frazier (whose name I can't say without hearing Mohammad Ali say "Fraaay-Zhaaa!"), misses a relatively rushed three. (good and lucky)
(10) Flowers makes both free throws (good)
(11) Jamar Smith airballs his second three of the night, and the game is basically over.

In review, we got lucky in that they missed shots that they had made at earlier points, and missed two free throws. We made a bunch of heady plays, put the ball in the hole when he could, didn't turn the ball over, and made our free throws. Plus, Illinois got a bit lucky with both of its foul calls toward the end of the game, meaning we were unlucky in that regard. But players kept their cool, played smart, stayed intense defensively, and hit their free throws. That's what it takes to pull out a win sometimes. In this case, when Alando was struggling from the field, when Pruitt was having a career night, when McBride was rediscovering his 3-point shooting, and when Illinois (home court advantage at play?) was shooting more free thows. Huge.

Other things:
- We finally shot free throws well! Even down the stretch. Hooray!
- Another tough night on offense for Alando, but he still made huge contributions, and ended up scoring 17 points, and getting 8 boards.
- Butch was working well down low on offense in the first half, but I think they went away from him because they were worried about defensive match-ups. It was either Carter or Pruitt for Butch-- both tough assignments for Brian.
- I guess that's why they went to Stiemsma. That and because Chappell got into foul trouble. Way to hit your jump shots, Greg. He played pretty well on defense, though no one did that good of a job on Pruitt. Career highs in minutes and points-- hitting those free throws at the end. Well done. You'd expect a 6'11" guy who played at Randolph High School and won multiple state championships probably must have a decent free throw stroke, because when you're 6 inches taller than everyone else you must have gotten fouled a lot.
- Kam's three-point shooting stroke sort of returned, but everyone else's is still AWOL.

Anyhow, wee haw! We beat the Fibs deep in the heart of Fib-dom. First time since 1997. Hell, yes. And we don't play them against this season. Now I can relax, and watch the Bears crap the bed tomorrow with my mind at ease.

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