After the first half of Sunday’s game, it did not look like the Fighting Illini were going to be extending their season opening winning streak to four despite the efforts of Trent Meacham in the first half. Then after the twelve minute TV timeout, the Illini defense clamped down on the Rattlers and the Illini blew them out with a 32-10 run to close out the 84-63 victory.
Playing four games in less than a week is never an easy task for a basketball team, but for the Illini it was even more difficult due to the roster limitations brought about by injuries to Brian Randle and Jamar Smith and Rich McBride’s suspension. The Illini finished the first week of the season sitting at 4-0, and this was done without having a back up guard outside of Chris Hicks available to Bruce Weber after Monday night’s season opener against Austin Peay. On Sunday afternoon it looked like the fatigue had finally caught up to the Illini, though.
Heading into halftime, the Illini found themselves in a predicament that was not too unexpected, but for a team that has won the second most games since 2000 in college basketball, it was a little shocking. The Illini were down 38-34 to the Florida A & M Rattlers. This was not a battle of the bands between the Marching 100 and the Marching Illini, where it might be reasonable to expect the Rattlers to have an upper-hand. This was a match up of the two basketball teams, and the Illini, even in their current state were not expected to be trailing the Rattlers after twenty minutes of play.
Just how did the Illini get to be trailing the Rattlers on Sunday night? Simple, the Illini defense was horrid in the first half. Florida A & M was getting open shots, and they were knocking them down. The Rattlers shot 13-for-26 (50%) in the first half from the floor, including 7-for-11 (63.6%) from behind the three point line. Using hot shooting throughout the half, coupled with some good defensive pressure on the Illini forcing them into poor shooting, the Rattlers entered the half time break ahead of the Illini. It looked like the Illini’s lack of depth in the backcourt was starting to show.
That was until after the second media timeout of the second half (the twelve minute mark). The Illini and the Rattlers had been battling back and forth in the second half, and the score was tied 53-53 heading into the timeout. That was when Bruce Weber’s Fighting Illini went on a run and started to completely dominate the basketball game. The Illini held Florida A & M to just 10 points in the final twelve minutes while scoring thirty-two. That twelve minute stretch saw the Illini force six Rattlers turnovers and only allow three Rattler baskets (two of which came once the game was decided and the Illini were already up twenty points).
The only thing from Sunday afternoon that was not in the final twelve minutes of the game was a lot of Trent Meacham scoring. It was Meacham’s three point shooting that kept the Illini close in the first half and the early portions of the second. He scored 18 of his career-high 24 points before the Illini went on their run in the second half. Without his offensive output, the Illini’s record could be 3-1. Meacham was, for the most part, the only Illinois player that seemed to be in sync for the first twenty-eight minutes of Sunday’s game.
Once Illinois’ run started, Meacham was joined by fellow sophomores Calvin Brock and Chester Frazier on the Illini’s offensive explosion. Brock’s three-pointer just before the media timeout brought the Illini even with Florida A & M, and in Illinois’ run to close out the game he scored. Frazier scored the majority of his thirteen points in the second half, as well. Not to be left out of the Illini offense, junior Shaun Pruitt finally looked like he was there to be that offensive post presence the Illini need to open up the perimeter game. Pruitt scored fourteen points on six-for-nine shooting, and pulled down nine rebounds, which was a pleasant surprise after his very poor performance against Georgia Southern on Friday evening.
- Sunday afternoon reminded every one that follows Illinois basketball one thing: If the defense is playing just good instead of great (as it has been for the first three games of this season), the Illini are susceptible to be beat by anyone. Sure, all teams are susceptible to losing basketball games when their defense is not playing well, but for the Illini whose offense has been without their top three scorers for the last three games it is even more glaring. Luckily for Illinois, their defense clamped down on Sunday afternoon, and they were able to blow the Rattlers out in the final twelve minutes of the second half.
- Sunday marked the end of Rich McBride’s four game suspension for his arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol earlier this year. Bruce Weber must now work his senior shooting guard into the Illini guard rotation, but with him just being the fourth guard, it should not be difficult. McBride will get one “warm up” game on Tuesday night against Savannah State before the Illini’s non-conference schedule heats up with consecutive games against Miami (OH), Bradley (or Rutgers), Maryland, and Arizona. The integration of McBride into the Illini offense and defense before these games will be key to the Illini’s success on this difficult stretch of the non-conference schedule.
- Offensive rebounding was the name of the game on Sunday afternoon for the Fighting Illini, especially Calvin Brock and Shaun Pruitt. Brock and Pruitt combined for fifteen offensive rebounds, and completely dominated the Rattlers giving the Illini second chance point after second chance point.
- The Illini once again sold out Assembly Hall as the announced attendance for Sunday’s contest was 16,618. Now, of course there were not that many people in the Hall, but the appearance of a sold out Hall once again shows how devoted Illinois fans are to cheering on the Illini, even against teams like Florida A & M.