Win comes Fairleigh easy

Illinois guard Luther Head (4) drives past Fairleigh Dickinson´s Bernell Murray (12) Thursday at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Head had 13 points in 38 minutes of play. Online Poster

By Lisa Koulias

INDIANAPOLIS – You can’t mess with history.

And although the 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson did its best to upset the No. 1 Illini, it fell short of making history as the first No. 16 seeded team to knock off a No. 1 team.

Instead, it was the Illini who will continue their date with destiny in their quest for a national championship. They beat the Knights 67-55 on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“Obviously we weren’t as sharp as we want to be,” said Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. “We built a lead in the first half, let it slip, then built it back up in the second half. Our guys know we’re going to have to play a lot better if we’re going to advance in this tournament.”

The Knights weren’t about to let up easy, as they came out in the first half dominating the Illini, out-rebounding them 21-12. They even took the lead with 7:26 left in the first half, going up 20-19.

“They came out and played extremely well,” said junior guard Dee Brown. “They moved the ball, they did a lot of things well. They came out and played with a lot of energy and played good basketball.

“They came out with a lot of energy, a lot of fight. Coach talked to us about it before the game. They are on their last breath; you lose you go home.”

Even the Knights expected a better performance out of the No. 1 Illini.

“I guess with all the hype we expected more (out of Illinois),” said FDU guard Tamien Trent.

But despite the Illini’s poor first-half shooting – they shot only 38 percent in the first half compared to FDU’s 50 percent – they came out strong after halftime, opening on a 14-2 run.

“I thought it was important to come out and get it going in the first five minutes (of the second half),” Brown said. “We came out with a lot of energy. We really got off to a good start and it really helped us.”

Brown, who had no points in the Illini’s last game in Chicago, got back into the rhythm, leading the Illini with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting.

After making his first two field goals – back-to-back fast-break lay-ups – the crowd rose to its feet, happy to see the guard’s offensive touch return.

“Offense comes second in my book,” Brown said. “I got off to a good start. I got a few lay ups. I did OK.”

“He really got our energy going,” Weber said. “He hit some crazy shots when he got fouled and they still went in. We rely on Dee for the great energy.”

Junior forward James Augustine, fresh off his Big Ten Tournament MVP performance, took charge of the Illini’s rebounding woes in the second half, grabbing seven to give him 15 for the night. He finished with 11 points.

“It was something we put on the board at halftime,” Augustine said. “That’s something we need to take advantage of because they were out-rebounding us by a lot at halftime. I think we just needed to rebound better. The ball was bouncing my way and there’s no reason why I can’t take advantage of that.”

Forward Gordon Klaiber, who shot 11-of-20 for 24 points, led the Knights.

Illinois will now prepare for Saturday’s match-up with No. 9 seed Nevada. Game time is set for 4:40 p.m. Central Time.

Nevada, who improves to 25-6, beat the No. 8 seed Texas, 61-57.

“(This was an) extremely hard-fought game,” said Nevada head coach Mark Fox. “Texas is an outstanding team. We really had to battle a terrific team. This tournament can break your heart. There are tears of joy and pain after each game. I really feel for the Texas kids right now because we’ve been there.”

Nevada finished with four players in double-figures, led by senior forward Kevinn Pinkney with 15 points. Sophomore center Nick Fazekas, who averages 21.4 points a game, finished with a season-low 10 points. He recorded his 16th double double of the season.

Texas center Jason Klotz finished with a career-high 20 points for the Longhorns, who ended their season at 20-11.

Texas head coach Rick Barnes said he looks forward to an Illini-Nevada match-up.

“They’ll (Nevada) have to play great,” Barnes said. “Illinois is a team that has proven they can beat you a lot of ways. Illinois wouldn’t be where they are if they didn’t defend. I don’t predict games, but I think Nevada will have to play very hard.”