Streaks, wins and Big Ten powers, oh my!

By BobLa Gesse

MADISON, Wis. – Two big-time teams in a big-time game.

Could anything but a memorable contest be expected?

Going into the game, all of the Big Ten knew one streak had to end. Would it be 19 wins to start a season or 38-straight home wins?

It turned out to be the home wins as No. 1 Illinois delivered Bo Ryan his first Big Ten home loss ever in a 75-65 win over No. 18 Wisconsin.

The win not only puts Illinois in the driver’s seat for a conference title, it was also a statement.

Illinois showed Wisconsin they are the best Big Ten team of the last few years. No one else has played the type of basketball these teams have – not even Michigan State.

Illinois or Wisconsin have won a share of the last five Big Ten titles. That number will probably grow to six after this year.

Since 2000, both teams have split their eight regular season games. Both teams won all their home games. Plus, Wisconsin thumped Illinois in the Big Ten Championship game last year 70-53.

All of that was a wash Tuesday. It didn’t matter.

Pregame warm-ups weren’t even pregame warm-ups.

The Illini hardly looked at each other while shooting, let alone converse. There were a few high fives through them, but those were as rare as an Illini fan in the Kohl Center.

The only Illini to even acknowledge Wisconsin’s presence was freshman Calvin Brock. He’ll learn with time.

Just like the Big Ten learned athleticism wins over patience, No. 1 wins over homecourt advantages.

Illinois has won since Dee Brown, Deron Williams and James Augustine stepped foot on campus with athleticism. Wisconsin’s guards – especially Clayton Hanson – couldn’t stop Illinois’ dribble drive.

And Illinois jumped to an early lead.

But Bo Ryan teams never give up.

They just rely on their biggest strength when they get down – waiting for their moment. Then taking advantage of it.

The slow-it-down, grind-it-out, physical Badgers just bided their time and waited for their shot, usually a three off the hot fingers of guard Sharif Chambliss.

Neither team could pull away from the other.

Illinois would get up five and before they could silence the 17,142 grateful red heads, Mike Wilkinson would counter with one of his endless supply of post moves to bring the game, the crowd, and what looked like a win, back to Wisconsin’s side.

Wisconsin rode a 17-4 second-half run to build a 56-48 lead. The Illini hung their heads. The Illini openly fought on the court. Wisconsin was on its way to its 39th straight home win. The No. 1 team was on the verge of being No. 4.

Then a strange thing happened. Wisconsin’s other strength – its postgame – became Illinois strength.

Jack Ingram hit two three pointers in the final eight minutes. He forced a steal that led to a James Augustine dunk that gave the Illini a 67-64 lead and dashed any lingering thoughts of patience beating athleticism.

Ingram and Augustine silenced their critics – at least for the short term – by scoring 18 points and grabbing nine rebounds in the second half. Neither player played great in the first half. Augustine even spent most of the final 15 minutes on the bench in foul trouble.

The second half was a different game. Ingram and Augustine played aggressive. They took hard shots – Augustine was punched in the face during the game – and they gave them right back.

Illinois ended up beating Wisconsin at their own physical game. Something no one else has could do in the Kohl Center.

That is why Illinois is the best team in the Big Ten.

Bobby La Gesse is a senior in communications. He can be reached at [email protected]