Un-bull-ievable

Dee Brown takes the ball to the basket in the second half against Xavier on Saturday at the United Center in Chicago. Brown scored 20 points in Illinois´ 65-62 win. Peter Hoffman

Dee Brown takes the ball to the basket in the second half against Xavier on Saturday at the United Center in Chicago. Brown scored 20 points in Illinois´ 65-62 win. Peter Hoffman

By Erin Foley

CHICAGO – The No. 12 Illini men’s basketball team came into Saturday’s game against Xavier having won 14 straight games at the United Center. But for the first 20 minutes of play it looked as if Illinois left its game back in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Missing their first nine field goals, the Illini (7-0) scored their first point on a James Augustine free throw with 16:25 left in the first half. But a second-half defensive comeback and an orange-clad crowd of 19,833 aided Illinois in a 65-62 win over the Musketeers (3-1).

“That was a slow start; we had to get some stops,” senior guard Dee Brown said. “If we just rebound, there’s always going to be a chance to win. I think that’s what we try to focus in on.”

Senior forward Augustine had a career-high 23 points on 7 of 9 shooting. Augustine, who played his first 40-full minute game, also added a career-high 9 of 16 free throws and seven rebounds.

Augustine said it was his goal to be ready to play a full game, and that he only became “gassed” in the first half, when Xavier and the Illini were pushing the ball up the floor, trading turnovers and three-pointers.

Brown poured in 20 points on only 4-of-16 shooting, and had nine points from free throws, along with seven assists.

Despite starting the game down 12-0 and trailing by as many as 15 when the score was 19-4 with 10:38 to go in the half, the Illini used tighter defensive pressure to make their comeback. Marcus Arnold led the Illini attack from the bench, adding seven points and six rebounds in 16 minutes. Arnold scored all of his points in the last 5:43, scoring five critical points in a 31-second span.

“He’s been huge for us, I mean the last two games, three games, four games,” Augustine said. “Like coach said, ever since South Padre, the bench has been carrying us.”

Xavier was led by junior Justin Cage with 15 points, while Justin Doellman scored 12, 11 of which came in the first half.

While Xavier head coach Sean Miller said his team played well enough to win the game, he saw a combination of things that led to his team’s downfall.

The Illini’s size, pressure and attacking style of defense allowed Illinois to start off 15-4 in the second half, he said.

“As a matter of fact, their 15 points, a lot of their points were generated from steals or bad shots, or just turnovers,” Miller said. “We came unraveled and that’s because of Illinois.”

Head coach Bruce Weber said he was weary of how his team would start the game after seeing a lack of “mental focus, awareness and preparation.” He said he warned his team that the Xavier matchup was just as critical as Tuesday’s rematch with North Carolina, although it was “not human nature to hype it that way.”

“We weren’t sharp in our cutting, in our screening; we didn’t execute our plays,” Weber said. “I think we ran six or seven plays in the first half where somebody screwed it up, so that’s just mental awareness; us just being ready. We just kept talking about keeping it in single digits, gutting it out, getting it where we have a chance.”

Both Augustine and Brown closed out their careers at the United Center with a perfect 12-0 record, which meant a lot to the seniors, Brown said. After finishing his high school career with a loss there, Brown said it was good to get a win for the Chicago fans who do not see as many games.

“I think Xavier got in a little rhythm,” Brown said.”They were in a rhythm the first half, once the crowd got loud, that’s what makes us go.”

Up Next

The Illini will take on Arkansas Little-Rock tonight at 7. Without getting much practice time recently, Weber said his team has got to find a way to survive its next three games. After tonight’s game, the Illini will face Georgetown on Thursday, and then face Oregon in Portland, Ore., on Dec. 10.