Augustine propels win at United Center

By Courtney Linehan

CHICAGO – Maybe it was the threat of blemishing a perfect United Center record. Maybe it was the vision of a rare in-state loss looming in the distance. Maybe it was a senior captain taking control of his team.

Maybe it was just finding his stride as he logged a full 40 minutes on the court.

As Illinois looked eerily close to giving up its first loss of the season, forward James Augustine stepped up in the second half and pulled through for his team, scoring a career- and game-high 23 points in a series of miraculous maneuvers.

There were back-to-back three-point plays. Then there was the kiss-off-the glass two pointer, which Augustine followed up with a steal and one of his hang-on-the-rim dunks Illini fans got to know so well last season. And there were seven rebounds, a block and two steals, all tossed in for good measure.

“I feel like a go-to guy, but obviously I’ve just got to have the confidence to be; I said that at the beginning of the year,” Augustine said. “I’ve got to be more assertive towards the basket, and I think lately I’ve been doing that.”

The performance was enough to overshadow Augustine’s below average 9-of-16 shooting from the charity stripe – after all, he was 7-of-9 from the field. But if there is anything the senior from Mokena, Ill., was disappointed with, it was his ability to cash in when he was sent to the line seven times in the second half.

“I’ve been a pretty good free throw shooter the last two years, then when it comes down to crunch time I missed a couple,” Augustine said. “It wasn’t nerves. I don’t know if I wasn’t concentrating, wasn’t getting enough shots up, but I’m going to have to get in the gym these next few weeks and work on it.”

As one of Illinois’ two fourth-year players, Augustine is becoming a key leader in the developing frontcourt. Weber said he likes how his guards are learning to move the ball inside, a change certain to benefit the big man.

But Weber said Augustine’s speed in reading opportunities still needs improvement before the head coach will be satisfied that he is playing up to his potential. Weber said last season, Augustine more fluidly found scoring opportunities and always thought offensively.

“I’d still like him to get the ball and attack the defense one-on-one,” Weber said. “He doesn’t read opportunities, or he’ll have an opportunity and he’ll hesitate and then it’s too late. When he catches the ball, that doesn’t mean take bad shots but (shooting) should be his first inclination.”

MARCUS ARNOLD

While Illinois relied on seniors James Augustine (23 points) and Dee Brown (20) to lead the shooting attack, junior Marcus Arnold made the most of the just 16 minutes he played in Saturday’s game. Foul trouble limited his time on the court, but Arnold was 3-of-4 on field goal shooting, and grabbed six boards – just one less than game-leader Augustine.

“I think Marcus did a great job coming in,” Augustine said. “He let the first guy score on him, we kind of got on him a little bit, but after that everything was perfect. He got his rebounds, got a couple of put-backs, played well on defense. He did exactly what coach wanted him to do. He played a perfect game off the bench.”

After sitting out the 2004-05 season as a transfer, Arnold is itching to make his mark on game day. Hitting clutch buckets in the second half against Xavier hinted that he has the ability to do just that.

“He made some big plays for us, big rebounds, big defense, a couple big shots,” Weber said.

RANKING RUNDOWN

The No. 12 Illini earned that mark after achieving unprecedented success last season and establishing a 5-0 record through Nov. 26. With tough wins against North Carolina and Xavier now under their belts, the Illini could crack the top 10 when new rankings come out Monday.

Weber said he is not sure if Illinois has earned the impressive rankings the team has picked up so far. But he is also not sure if they should be ranked higher.

“If you watched the first 10, 12 minutes of the second half at North Carolina, maybe we are that good,” Weber said. “But then you watch the first five, 10 minutes of this game, and I don’t know if we should be in the top 100. It’s too early to tell right now.”

QUOTE OF THE GAME

“We said we’d have some rocky times. We had rocky times in the game, it’s going to be rocky up and down in the season, but if we guard and play hard, we have a chance to win.” – Bruce Weber