Illini enter four-way tie atop Big Ten

By Lucas Deal

Hundreds of fans were still piling into the Assembly Hall late Saturday afternoon as No. 8 Illinois tipped off against Big Ten rival Purdue. The game started out a little rocky, but eventually, both the fans and the Illini settled in.

After that, it was smooth sailing.

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Junior guard Rich McBride scored 19 points and guard Dee Brown added 12 with nine assists as Illinois used an early 14-0 run to turn a nine-point deficit into a five-point lead with 8:25 to go in the first half, and never trailed again on its way to a 76-58 win over the Boilermakers.

The win moves Illinois into a three-way tie with Southern Illinois and Gonzaga for the nation’s top home-winning streak at 33 games. Illinois has not lost at home since it was shocked by the Boilermakers 58-54 on Jan. 10, 2004.

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    After the game, Illini head coach Bruce Weber was glad to see his team rebound from its early deficit, but hopes it doesn’t become a common occurrence.

    “I’d rather be up 35-0 to be honest,” Weber said about the Boilermakers’ early lead. “But, they’ve competed with everybody (in the conference), so it wasn’t something new.”

    Purdue (7-12, 1-7) scored the first seven points of the game and led 15-6 with 13:46 remaining in the half when the Illini finally hit their stride.

    Jamar Smith buried a three-pointer from the left corner to cut the lead to six, and a pair of Brown fast-break layups and two free throws quickly tied the game at 15.

    “We looked at the scoreboard and knew we had to pick it up,” said forward James Augustine, who finished the game with 11 points and 12 rebounds. “We took (their run) and then kind of bounced back.”

    McBride added another three and junior forward Warren Carter bounced in a 15-footer from the baseline to put the Illini up five before the Boilermakers finally ended the run.

    “Their pressure was too much for us,” said Purdue head coach Matt Painter, a former assistant under Weber at Southern Illinois. “They forced us into some ill-advised passes and ill-advised shots.”

    Purdue cut the Illinois lead to 39-34 early in the second half before another Smith three-pointer ignited the Illini on a 17-3 run and pushed the lead to 19. It never sunk under double digits again.

    The victory moves Illinois’ overall record to 19-2 and into a four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten at 5-2.

    In a conference with so many good teams, Weber said the Illini need to do something soon to distance themselves from the rest of the pack.

    “We’re making progress,” he said. “The telling question is, ‘Can we win on the road?’ We had a chance at Indiana, but we didn’t find a way to win the game. We’ll see at Wisconsin.”