Stepping on Heels

By Courtney Linehan

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Were you at Wake? Did you hear Assembly Hall thunder? Did you feel the floor, the stands, the air rattle with each Illini basket?

If you saw the Wake Forest game last year, you did not need to make the trip to Chapel Hill. You’ve already been there.

North Carolina’s Smith Center looked like a baby-blue Pop-O-Matic bubble, as the stands vibrated and the ball bounced around the court in Tuesday’s installment of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. With just two significant players from either of last year’s squads back, it did not look like a rematch. And a non-conference win doesn’t ring as pure as a National Championship. But with a 68-64 victory against North Carolina, Illinois got what it wanted.

“I think it was a team effort; that was the big thing,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “When you’re on the road you’ve got to do all the little things, make the plays.”

And Illinois made the plays. Four players scored in double digits, and Illinois out-rebounded North Carolina almost 2-1 under the Tar Heel’s basket. And despite 18 turnovers, Illinois took care of the ball better than North Carolina.

“We finally went out on the road, played a good team, and got a win out of it,” senior forward James Augustine said.

Forward Brian Randle may have been Illinois’ star, with pairs of treys, blocks and steals that made him a presence all over the court. After going, as Weber put it, “0-for-Spain” this summer, Randle was glad to see that focusing on his outside shooting is starting to pay off.

“We worked pretty extensively on my shot, muscle memory, shooting form,” Randle said. “Right now I’m just trying to stay consistent, keep building every day.”

It took a few minutes for both sides to settle into the game. With more freshmen than seniors on the floor, the pace seemed hectic as guard Dee Brown got tied up between two North Carolina guards and was forced to call a timeout less than 20 seconds in.

The stands shook about five minutes later, when Illinois gave up back-to-back turnovers that North Carolina converted into back-to-back dunks.

“Both teams played hard,” Weber said. “That was one thing we told our guys. We’re not going to be pretty on offense early, but we can play hard.”

The Tar Heels pulled ahead on a bucket by David Noel, and built a five-point lead with 11 minutes to play in the first half.

Slowly, though, Illinois put a less-flashy and, if you will, more mature game on the court, and it paid. While the Tar Heels freshmen chased big dunks and fast breaks, Illinois’ coaches used their senior leadership to the team’s advantage, as Brown and Augustine established a dishing repertoire that led them to a combined 27 points.

“James and Dee didn’t seem to be too carried away or emotional,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said. “They were just businesslike. They got their team into what they wanted to do.”

The Illini built a solid lead in the second half, and while nobody seemed to tell North Carolina’s screaming fans, an Illinois win seemed certain.

“The second half I think we just saw what we did wrong and how they scored, and we adjusted to it,” Augustine said.

While the lead slipped – almost away – when the Tar Heels cut it to two points with less than a minute to play, Brown controlled the ball and sunk a pair of free throws.

Weber insists this is just one game. Augustine insists this does not make up for last April. But it does hint at a brighter season than some fans had predicted for Illinois.

“It makes us a little bit more confident,” Augustine said. “We finally came on the road, played a good team and pulled it out, so we’re going to be happy with it.”