Last weekend the University of Illinois men’s basketball team was chased out of Assembly Hall in Champaign by the state high school wrestling tournament, only to butt up against the Public League boys’ basketball finals in the United Center. The Fighting Illini took on Northwestern University at 1 PM; then the orange-clad Illini rooters–who greatly outnumbered NU fans–were shooed from the stadium so it could be tidied up for the freshman-sophomore title game at six and the varsity championship at eight. As Mike North later said on Channel 11, the UC floor probably hadn’t seen so much good basketball in five years. All six teams played with relentless motion, intelligence, and high spirits, not only shooting well but making their free throws. A fan could almost see the snorting Bulls logo at center court bowing its head in shame.
This was basketball with a minimum of adornment, shorn of the ridiculous distractions the Bulls offer up to keep fans from thinking or talking about the actual game during breaks in play, and it felt good. Sure, the Illini offered the usual college pageantry–a band, cheerleaders, pom-pom girls, even a baton twirler–and there were a couple of dismal scoreboard-screen time wasters making light of characters on the team. But for the most part this was simply basketball–and that seemed to be how the Illini alumni liked it. They packed the UC to halfway up the upper balcony. There were 15,429 people in all, a crowd slightly enhanced by NU rooters–who were easy to spot because they tended to be such a colorless bunch. Actually, a little less color on the part of the Illini alums might have been a good thing: the current generation needs to be told that a fanny pack and blue and orange horizontal stripes don’t go well with a middle-age paunch. (Alums back in my undergraduate days were oblivious to the fashion negatives of orange plaid golf slacks.) Yet never has so much crowd color distracted so little from the game. Illini fans don’t pride themselves on their verbal wit, like Duke rooters do, and they don’t try to emulate the endless “Let’s go Blue!” chest-beating rites of Michigan. They sat down after the opening tip, cheered for their team, chided and entreated the players through rough patches, and watched a good game.
The Illini should have had it all over NU, despite playing closer to the Wildcats’ home base than their own. The Illini were clearly bigger, faster, and quicker than their brainier (in theory and college rankings, anyway) opponents. The biggest mismatch came at small forward courtesy of one of their least publicized starters, Roger Powell. Bigger and quicker than NU’s Jitim Young, Powell hit from outside and powered away inside, scoring 16 in the first half on the way to a game-high 20 points. NU also had no answer to Illinois’ whiz kid freshman point guard, Dee Brown, who cruised the court with little resistance in stylish new accessories that featured high white socks and white shoes with orange trim–one Illini look that did come off well. Young came up with an early steal, but Powell hustled back to block his layup from behind and the Illini turned the play the other way, Brown finishing with a lay-in. Powell followed with a three-pointer to put the Illini up 9-3, and a rout looked on. After Brown hit a three the Illini led 25-10, and when spindly backup center Nick Smith made a nice interior pass to Powell for another easy basket moments later, Illinois was up 31-13.
At that point the Illini seemed to lose interest. Northwestern snuck back into the game, and Illini fans looked up with some consternation to find the lead under ten. Brown had to force a drive, draw a foul, and hit both free throws to reassert a double-digit lead, 43-33, at halftime. After a rousing performance by Chief Illiniwek–count me firmly in the camp of the great white cretins where sports mascots are concerned–the Illini came out refocused, with senior forward Brian Cook especially intent on taking a leadership role. Still, there was that nagging feeling–all too familiar to Illinois fans–that the game could be pissed away. If the other team had been anybody but Northwestern everyone would have been that much more anxious, but even the Wildcats came out and played well. Mohamed Hachad made a sweet behind-the-back pass to Jason Burke on a fast break for a layup that brought NU back to 52-44 and seemed to inspire the Cats. Lumbering center Aaron Jennings stepped out to hit a three-pointer and it was 58-53. A few minutes later Young exacted his revenge on Powell, beating him off the dribble to score easily when no one collapsed to help out. Now Illinois led 59-55, and coach Bill Self called a time-out. “Come on!” pleaded more than one Illini fan. Cook, who was sometimes triple-teamed, got clear for a pass from Brown and a short jumper, and he followed with a three-point play to put Illinois ahead 64-55 with three and a half minutes to go. One could almost hear a collective sigh of relief–or maybe that was just the sound of 10,000 orange cotton shirts collapsing after a deep breath. With Brown sometimes killing off the clock like Curly Neal, the Illini coasted home to a 73-61 victory. Treacherous as it can be to win a home game on the road, this was a good experience for the Illini, who’ll return to the UC next month for the Big Ten tournament.
The Illini have all the pieces–size, speed, quickness, depth, a determined big man in Cook and a flashy point guard in Brown–which made their more than occasional lapses so frustrating this season. Crane High School has many of the same tools, but they put them to use game in and game out, entering the state playoffs undefeated at 25-0 after winning the city championship Saturday night. Crane starts five seniors–a group that suffered through an upset loss in the city title game two years ago–but this time there was no denying them. The Cougars’ marquee players are big men Lorenzo Thompson, a bull-necked but surprisingly lithe center, and forward Florentino Valencia, who on Saturday displayed the keen look, intelligence, and determination of a bull terrier. Ergo, the city final against Julian was supposed to be a battle of inside strength versus outside shooting and agility. Julian, which entered the game 19-9, had all but run vaunted Whitney Young off the court in the quarterfinals the week before, though in the end it had to hang on to win a close one after a Young second-half rally. The mark of a truly great team, however, is the ability to alter its tactics to suit the opponent, and that’s exactly what Crane did. Rather than sit back and try to contain Julian guards James Watson and Terrance Gray, the Cougars took it right to them. Crane guard Tremel Gilot opened by hitting a pair of threes, and then Crane pounded it down low to Thompson and Valencia, scoring ten points before Julian got on the board. Thompson popped out to hit a three to make it 13-2, and again a rout appeared to be on. When Julian scrambled back into it, Crane brought out its secret weapon, freshman guard Sherron Collins, a skilled dribbler with a rare court sense. (In Crane’s quarterfinal game he went end to end with a rebound, spinning out of a crowd on the dribble, at one point putting his free hand on the ground for balance in the manner of Walter Payton, and finishing by going behind his back for a layup.) Crane coach Anthony Longstreet showed his faith in the freshman by putting the ball in his hands at the end of almost every period. Collins finished the first quarter by faking a back-door pass then calmly hitting the shot to put Crane ahead 19-13. In the second quarter the Cougars again came out bombing–and hitting–from the outside, this time with Jamale Tidwell hitting a pair of threes to make it 27-17. Julian clawed back, but Crane roused itself when Gilot led a two-on-one fast break and gave the ball up to Valencia for a crushing slam dunk that stretched the lead to 29-21. Crane worked the lead back to ten, and again Longstreet put the ball in Collins’s hands on the final possession, this time spreading the floor and letting him deal. Crane didn’t score, but it ran out the clock holding a 38-28 lead.
Carl Marshall became the third Crane player to open a period with a three-pointer when the smooth-shooting lefty instantly answered a Julian basket with a long one to make the lead 41-30. He’d lead Crane the rest of the way and finish with a game-high 23 points. With the Crane guards bombing away from outside, Thompson and Valencia could concentrate on defense and rebounding. Thompson snuffed a Julian fast break single-handedly, starting a rush the other way for a 44-32 lead, and Valencia pounded the boards at both ends as Crane held a 57-46 lead through three quarters. Then Marshall opened the fourth quarter with a three-pointer–this one not an open shot but a tough, contested look with a hand in his face. Julian ran off five straight points, and Longstreet called a time-out. An assistant shouted “Put ’em away!” and Crane did. Gilot hit a three. A few possessions later, Marshall dribbled past his man and into the lane, where he hit a lovely running floater–feet tucked up under him like retracted landing gear–to make it 69-55. Julian had survived the semifinals the night before with a 15-3 run in the final two and a half minutes–beating Lincoln Park 65-63 on a couple of free throws by Gray after a dubious blocking foul in the last second–but the Jaguars couldn’t pull off the same sort of miracle against Crane. Longstreet emptied his bench in the last minute as the game edged toward its 80-68 final score. At the buzzer the starters all came dashing off the bench, led by Thompson, who set out in the long-legged gait of a drum major only to go skimming across the floor in light-footed little dance steps that barely seemed to allow his sneakers to touch the ground. He led the Crane players in a victory dance, with Valencia breaking it down until he was all but humping the court. The UC hadn’t seen such a celebration as that in about five years either.