Illini men take inspiration from women’s near-miss at NCAA berth

By Jeremy Werner

INDIANAPOLIS – The Illinois men didn’t need to look very far for a little inspiration. In fact, they had to simply walk down the hall at the Ubben Basketball Complex.

With a 54-50 victory over Minnesota on Saturday, the men matched the Illinois women by upsetting three higher-ranked seeds for the right to play in the Big Ten Tournament championship.

First-year coach Jolette Law led the women to victories over eighth-seeded Wisconsin, top-seeded Ohio State and fifth-seeded Michigan State to put Illinois in the conference championship game, setting up an opportunity for a possible automatic NCAA Tournament bid. But Lakisha Freeman’s buzzer-beating jumper gave the third-seeded Boilermakers a 58-56 victory, ending the women’s chances of a NCAA berth.

The men took notice of their female counterparts’ success and were aware they faced similar adversity.

“To see the women actually go out there and be determined and make a run and be a shot away from actually winning the thing, I know that in the back of our minds, before we even started the run, we thought if they had the will to win it than we should too,” senior Chris Hicks said. “Why not? We’re basically in the same position.”

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Illinois coach Bruce Weber said the team watched some of the women’s games together after practice, including the last-second loss to Purdue.

“We were all heartbroken to see them lose on a blockout, especially with the effort they gave,” Weber said.

Weber and company are hoping for a happier ending on Sunday afternoon against top-seed Wisconsin.

“Unfortunately, they got a bad bounce and hopefully tomorrow we won’t be in that situation,” senior Brian Randle said. “Hopefully, we can be up or we get a better bounce.”

Like the men, the women had few bounces go their way this season, losing six games by three points or less, all of which seemed to be more heartbreaking than the previous.

Rebecca Harris was the center of two controversial calls that seemed backbreaking for the Illini early in the season. The senior guard was called for an offensive foul on January 2 at Penn State after hitting a possible game-winning lay up and was then whistled for traveling as time expired in Madison on February 14.

To make matters worse, the women were also defeated by last-second shots against Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State. Lori Bjork’s buzzer-beating 3-point attempt versus Michigan on February 24 rimmed in and out to seemingly end all hope of the ill-fated season.

But the team fought back with a vengeance in the conference tournament to give their season light again despite a limited, injury-plagued roster.

The men also found their opponents to have a little more luck, losing three overtime games and five contests decided by four points or less.

Whether it was Indiana’s Eric Gordon not calling bank on a game-tying 25-foot 3-pointer or several late-game misses at the free-throw line, the Illini could not find a way to close out games.

Whether it’s luck or a sign of maturity, things have been different for the Illini this weekend with three nail-biting victories.

With his career at Illinois one loss away from an end, Brian Randle said the women were an inspiration to the team.

“I think watching the women’s transitions with a new coach and some of the struggles they had, only having eight or nine girls at the end of the season, I think it was inspiring to watch their progression and the heart they played with, the dedication they showed throughout the season and into the tournament really gave us a little more oomph,” Randle said.

The Illini have the chance to write a true Cinderella story. Illinois has been beaten down and mocked all season long, but if the magic spell lasts one day longer, the Illini will be going to the Big Dance.

Chris Hicks is just hoping the slipper fits at the end of regulation Sunday.

“Hopefully we can actually finish it off for (the women), for the university and for us and get us another tournament bid because that’s what it’s all about right now.”