Illini upset No. 1 team

By Lisa Koulias

So much for the best non-conference game of the year.

In front of a sea of orange-clad fans, No. 3 Illinois proved to the world why they deserve to be called the top team in the nation.

And it was easier than most expected. Illinois outplayed No. 1 Wake Forest, handing the Demon Deacons an embarrassing 91-73 loss, their first of the season.

“We obviously lost to a much better team tonight,” said Wake Forest head coach Skip Prosser. “I tip my hat off to Illinois. They played infinitely better than we did – I don’t know how much more clearly I can say that.”

From the time the Illini stepped on the court, the atmosphere of Assembly Hall ignited the players. The Illini jumped out to a 14-7 lead four minutes into the game, and never looked back.

“We just came ready to play,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “We were at home and we played like we should at home. You should play this way at home with that great energy. It’s not everyday you have a No. 1 team coming in. We had ‘pack the hall orange’ added to it. Then you have their great guard play having a lot of publicity, and it all just kind of added up.”

The Illini had to play most of the first half without Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year Deron Williams. With 17:12 left in the first half, Williams committed his second foul and took a seat on the bench.

With Williams out, the Illini increased their lead to 11 points. He returned with 10 minutes left in the half and helped give the Illini a hefty 54-33 lead at the break.

“We played great and we did it without Deron,” Weber said. “If anything we didn’t lose the lead; we expanded it while Deron was out.”

“Playing without Deron, he’s the best player, it’s tough,” Dee Brown said. “But you have to step up and play. We played without him when he got injured. He’s a great asset to our team, but when he goes out, someone else has to step up and I think Luther (Head) and (Roger Powell Jr.) and myself made some shots and played hard.”

Powell Jr. led the Illini scoring attack as the senior forward shot 8-of-10 for 19 points. Head and Brown were next on the list with 16 points apiece.

“We talked all along, our juniors are good, but our seniors have to play well and Roger was big-time today, especially in the first half,” Weber said. “Luther has just been consistently maybe our best guard – and people don’t even realize it. … It was just a great team performance.”

But does this win push Illinois into the No. 1 spot?

“After that performance, you tell me,” Brown said.

But as Weber said, voting doesn’t occur until Sunday, after Illinois’ next game against Arkansas.

“Everyone asked me after if we are going to be No. 1,” Weber said. “We have to win at Arkansas. Next week is the most important week in this stretch.”

But with a win like this, the bull’s-eye is bound to be on Illinois’ back.

“I think the bull’s-eye has always been on us,” Powell Jr. said. “Like Dee said, we’re always a top-10 program and teams look at that and it’s something that we have to play with.

“The bull’s-eye may have gotten bigger, so we have to really focus now.”