Illini must rebound from loss to Terps to prevent losing streak

By Lucas Deal

Let me ask you a question.

If I would have told you yesterday morning that Maryland forward Ekene Ibekwe would not be available for Tuesday night’s game; and the Terrapins other star, DJ Strawberry, would only score seven points, would you have expected Illinois to beat Maryland?

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Yeah, me neither.

But it turns out things don’t always work out the way we expect – as evidenced by No. 23 Maryland’s 72-66 win over the Illini Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

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    Yep, the Illini got the break they needed when the six-foot-nine Ibekwe was made unavailable Tuesday morning – they just weren’t able to capitalize on it.

    And now, as a result, the Illini head into Saturday’s showdown in Phoenix against No. 16 Arizona in danger of their first non-conference losing streak since 1999 – when they lost consecutive game to Duke and – who else – Maryland.

    “I’m saucy,” Illini forward Shaun Pruitt said after the game. “We were saying (in the huddle) that it felt like they were giving the game to us and we just gave it right back to them.”

    That’s never a good thing to hear from a player, but it’s even worse when it’s true.

    The Terrapins jumped out to an early 20-6 lead and still held a commanding edge late in the first half before the Illini finally woke up to cut the halftime deficit to five.

    The rally continued in the second period as Illinois pulled even, then passed the Terps at 48-43; but just when it looked like the Illini were going to take the game, Maryland fought back.

    Terrapin freshman Greivis Vasquez spurred the comeback, scoring eight of his 17 points in a two-minute span to cut the Illini lead to one. Maryland then regained the lead for the final time, making it 53-52, and the Illini could not respond.

    Illini head coach Bruce Weber told his team during the second half that they would have one chance, one window, to take the momentum from the Terps and win the game. If they took advantage of the chance, he said, they would improve to 8-0. If not, well, I guess they’d be right where they are now.

    “They just out-toughed us,” Illini forward Warren Carter said.

    It’s true. They did.

    Illinois had every reason to want to win this game: they were playing a ranked team on national TV, they were playing in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, they were playing at home, and, in the second half, they were playing with the lead.

    They should have fed off the crowd and off the situation. They should have pulled away when they had the chance. But they didn’t.

    Since Weber’s arrival at Illinois, rebounding from losses hasn’t been a big problem because there haven’t been many. The fourth-year Illini head coach is 96-17 since hitting town in 2003.

    But now, with three full days to digest Illinois’ first non-conference loss in its last 41 tries, Weber and his team must step up. They must not let their heads hang.

    Arizona is a very good team. They will want to run the floor and push the ball, and do the things Maryland did Tuesday night. If the Illini want to have a chance, they’ll have to be ready.

    They’ll have to want it.

    “Maybe that (desire to win) has to come from the inside,” Weber said. “If we can look in the mirror and blame ourselves, that’s something we can work with. If we try to blame someone else, then it’s probably too late.”

    Let’s hope it’s not.

    Lucas Deal is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]