Sports column: Fans bringing the heat

By Mike Szwaja

The date is Feb. 10, 2004. It’s Paint the Hall Orange night at Assembly Hall, and the Illini are hosting Big Ten rival Michigan State. The event has been well-publicized – more so than in the past few years. By tipoff, the Hall is orange … and I mean orange. Very few of the fans in attendance missed the memo and wore their gray or blue Illini shirts.

The fans’ energy level is extraordinary – the highest it’s been since the 92-65 thrashing of North Carolina a year ago – and judging by the last 5:41 of the first half, the players are equally amped. The Illini finish the half on a 12-0 run and head into the second half leading 35-20.

Thanks to Luther Head’s lethal shooting, the Illini never let it get close again, prevailing 75-51.

The Illini wouldn’t lose another Big Ten regular season game in the days following the Michigan State game.

Eight days later, they disposed of second-place Wisconsin 65-57 in front of another orange crowd.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
Thank you for subscribing!

Dee Brown’s shower of three-pointers saved the Illini at Penn State in a 66-58 victory on the 21st.

The Orange Krush invaded Carver-Hawkeye arena on the 25th and inspired the Illini to a 78-59 drubbing of Iowa.

The Illini got revenge on in-state rival Northwestern for an early-season loss with a 66-56 win over the Wildcats on the 29th.

Then, on March 3, the Illini strutted into Purdue with a chance to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title. Inspired again by the orange-clad Illini die-hards who made the trip, the Illini won an overtime thriller on a Head fall-away in the final seconds.

Four days later, the Illini fans showed up in droves once again, this time at Ohio State. The Illini sweated out another close one to seal their first outright Big Ten title in 52 years.

“One crowd, one game” helped lift last year’s squad all the way to the outright Big Ten title. The fans went beyond the call of duty during that span, and the players followed suit. All it took was one Paint the Hall Orange night and a Michigan State blowout.

Which brings us to Wednesday night. By now, we all know what happened. The greatest, most enthusiastic Assembly Hall crowd in recent memory showed up and helped the Illini beat the pulp out of the nation’s No. 1 team, Wake Forest, 91-73 – a score that, as odd as it sounds, was not indicative of how bad of a beating it really was.

Unlike the past, huge media exposure followed. ESPN’s Jay Bilas boldly claimed the crowd was the most hostile one Wake would face this season; Wake will travel to Duke on Feb. 20.

Chicago newspapers ran stories about the dedication of Orange Krush members who camped out on Tuesday night and slept in the snow.

ESPN’s Digger Phelps called the Illini the best team in the country. Even Dick Vitale, the unofficial spokesman for the ACC, said during the Indiana/North Carolina game that the Illini and their fans were “awesome.”

It’s safe to say both the Illini and their fans now have reputations to uphold. The fans must take it upon themselves to make Bilas sound like a wise man. Paint the Hall Orange shouldn’t be a once-a-year thing. What the national audience saw on ESPN on Wednesday – that’s how the Hall should look for every game.

During Bruce Weber’s weekly radio show on Monday night, a caller asked Weber how he planned to keep his team’s energy level high after the Wake game, win or lose. Weber said he told his team before the season started that the next four games – Arkansas in Little Rock, Ark., Chicago St. at home, Georgetown on the road and Oregon at the United Center – would be the most important stretch of the season.

He told the team they would either have to build on the momentum of a win or rebound after a loss. We now know the former is in effect, and the same can be said for the Illini fans.

The fans put on quite a show Wednesday night, but building on the energy of the Wake Forest game is crucial. If they keep wearing orange, cheering their vocal chords to shreds and traveling in hordes to road games, the Illini will keep winning – just like they did last season.

However, the fans outdid anything they did last season Wednesday night, and the team did something they hadn’t done since 1979 – beat a team ranked No. 1.

If the Illini fans prove they are the best fans in college basketball, they’ll make it easier for their team to prove they’re the nation’s best team come March.

Mike Szwaja is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected].