Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Vitale's Take on Illinois...

an. 25, 2005
MADISON, Wis. -- Madison was the capital of the college basketball world on Tuesday night. It was 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, it was the resiliency of Bruce Weber's team, coming back from an eight-point deficit in the second half, that 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 had a look in its eyes, and like a true champion, the Illini fought back. There was unbelievable intensity and emotion all night, and the Orange Crush prevailed 75-65. The final score didn't indicate how close this really was. It truly was a great college basketball game.

The athleticism and quickness of the Illini made a big difference, as did free-throw shooting down the stretch. The Illini's ability to convert -- they made 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.

One player who provided a big spark was Jack Ingram, who hit a couple of key 3-pointers in the second half. Suddenly the bench provided the energy needed for the comeback.

It was a thrilling night as both the Illini and Badgers played with pride and emotion, representing their respective schools so well.

Illinois' guard trio of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head plays 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 is so tough to pressure those guys because of their quickness and ballhandling ability.

I was thrilled to see the Badgers fans give their team a standing ovation after the Kohl Center win streak was snapped. They are a class act, and were clearly appreciative about the accomplishments of this Wisconsin squad. Those Badgers played their hearts out. It is incredible to think this was their first Big Ten home loss under Bo Ryan (now 26-1).

Now the question is, can Illinois run the table and go unbeaten through the Big Ten? I don't think anyone will beat them in Champaign, where the Orange Crush go wild and the Illini escaped with a tight win over Iowa. If Weber's team can win in the Izzone next week at East Lansing -- and beating Michigan State is never easy there -- then I think there is a good chance the Illini will duplicate the feat of St. 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.

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