Illinois overcomes adversity, wins title

By Ian Gold

Bruce Weber addressed the orange faithful who followed his team to Chicago and told them he has a problem. Illinois is starting to run out of places to put trophies in the team’s office.

Illinois’ 54-43 victory over Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon means the Illini will need to find space for one more trophy.

“We are really proud of our accomplishments,” Weber said of his first Big Ten Tournament Championship and Illinois’ second in three years.

Illinois’ shooting woes appeared again on Sunday. The Illini shot a dismal 35.8 percent. The team is used to shooting a much higher percentage from the field.

It’s a positive attribute that Weber says brought about a false sense of what this team is about for a couple weeks. While this team has shown the ability to be flashy, when it comes down to it, they can also play great defense.

“I knew that once March rolled around that we would click in defensively,” Weber said. “I think that we played great defensively for the past three days.”

Illinois forced Wisconsin into taking bad shots early, and tournament MVP James Augustine kept Alando Tucker below double digits while making his presence felt with his shot-blocking ability. The Wisconsin players, who had lit up the past couple games with individuals scoring in the 20s, didn’t reach double digits.

“You’re going to have to win a game or two in the tournament by out-toughing or out-fighting the other team,” Weber said.

Wisconsin shot 25.9 percent from the field, and Badger coach Bo Ryan made a point of saying that Augustine had intimidated his players into thinking twice before taking their shots.

Illinois also did a good job of cleaning up after Wisconsin’s erratic shooting, as the Illini had done for the entirety of the tournament, out-rebounding their opponents. Roger Powell Jr. dominated the boards, finishing with 12 rebounds, five of them offensive.

“At the beginning of the season, everyone questioned our big men,” Deron Williams said. “All of this season they have proved that they are one of our strengths instead of a weakness.”

Illinois senior guard Luther Head was also named to the All-Tournament Team.

After cutting down the United Center nets, Illinois immediately turned its attention to the NCAA tournament. The squad hustled into the United Center Locker Room Club to watch the tournament selection show, where it was rewarded with the No. 1 seed overall in the tournament.

The No. 1 seed was highly coveted and planned for by the coaching staff, but now the attention is channeled the same way it has all year: Illinois takes things one game at a time. Even though a No. 1 seed has never lost its opening game in the tournament, Illinois now turns all its attention to Fairleigh Dickinson.

With the time off, Illinois will start to prepare for its possible match-ups and use extra time in the gym to get back a shooting rhythm and confidence.

“We have to worry about one game at a time and not look too far ahead,” Augustine said. “We put ourselves in the position we wanted to be in and now we have to take advantage of it.”