Northwestern fans’ taunts energize Illini to win

By Lisa Koulias

EVANSTON, Ill. – The No. 1 Illini had a lot on their minds going into Saturday’s match against Northwestern. Not only was last year’s bitter loss to the Wildcats still causing the team nightmares, but a win in Evanston would mean the best start in program history.

So while the Illini had enough motivation going into Saturday’s contest, Northwestern and its fans gave the Illini a little more.

About 25 minutes before the game even started, a Northwestern fan threw a piece of pizza towards an Illini student manager, sending the Illini into the game with a little more fire.

Led by senior guard Luther Head, the Illini forgot last year’s loss and earned their best start in school history (18-0) with a 78-66 win over the Wildcats at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“Their crowd is very good,” said Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. “Their students are great. If our students would say some of the things they did I think we’d be in trouble; we always get reported. But it’s a fun thing. It’s college basketball. They were even abusing our managers.

“That’s part of having home court; I think it motivated our guys.”

Head, who took offense to the comments made to one of the team’s managers – who is also his roommate – came out strong from the beginning, scoring the team’s first eight points.

“They were talking about our managers most of all,” Head said. “I didn’t really like that at all. I didn’t think that was appropriate; they weren’t the ones playing the game so they didn’t need to talk to them.”

Head, who has led the Illini in scoring all season, finished the game with a season-high 26 points, just three shy of his career high set at the Big Ten tournament last year against Indiana. In last year’s two games against Northwestern, Head only scored a total of seven points.

“He put us on his back in the second half and made some key shots,” guard Deron Williams said of Head’s play. “He was just a great player today.”

Williams, who was plagued with foul trouble the whole game, dished out nine assists in 25 minutes of play. Dee Brown and Roger Powell Jr. were the only other Illini to finish in double-digits.

Northwestern’s Vedran Vukusic led the Wildcats with 20 points.

As the Illini return to Champaign, their eyes are set on Thursday’s match up with Iowa. Although it’s back to business, the Illini are enjoying leaving footprints in the record books.

“We love it,” Head said. “We’ve done something no one else has done. Just to accomplish something no one has, we’ve got something to talk about. But we still have a lot left to accomplish.”