COLUMN: Illini struggle to beat UIC at their home away from home

By Lucas Deal

CHICAGO – The University of Illinois at Chicago is one mile from the United Center. You can see the stadium from the UIC campus. And yet, despite the proximity between UIC and the UC, Saturday afternoon’s clash was touted as, essentially, a home game for the Illini. It might have been scheduled in Chicago, but it was going to have a Champaign kind of a feel.

It didn’t.

Both teams struggled to adjust to the United Center’s NBA-style dimensions and UIC took advantage of its location to bring a small but raucous fanbase.

Illinois led by 15 at the half, but an 11-0 UIC run to start the second half left most of the orange-clad crowd speechless. For a while, an upset seemed possible.

UIC was giving the Illini all they could handle; they were controlling the tempo and the flow of the game. They were dictating how things would go down.

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    They just couldn’t get the lead. Two points, five points, three points, the Flames were close the entire second half – they just couldn’t put together enough of a run to ever grab the lead.

    The thing was, Illinois didn’t seem too worried about keeping it. Sure, the Illini did end up winning by five; they just didn’t play like they wanted to.

    “I’m not happy,” Illini head Bruce Weber said after the game. “We should have been up 20 at the half, we should have put the game away in the first five minutes of the (second half), we just didn’t make smart plays.”

    Sadly, Weber’s right. The Illini have spent the entire season filling holes, plugging gaps and just trying to make things work, yet on Saturday when they finally had enough players to fix their mistakes, they played their worst.

    They were sluggish on defense, they couldn’t score in transition and their rebounding, while solid, was not what it’s been in past games.

    “We let them back into the game,” Illini guard Rich McBride said. “We have to come out more mentally prepared; we have to mature as a team.”

    Weber agreed.

    Because the Illini have been forced to deal with so many setbacks and injuries through the season’s first two months, they haven’t been able to practice as a whole.

    This week, with the exception of Richard Semrau (whose chest infection will leave him sidelined until at least February), they will finally be given the chance to do so, and Weber said the team has to get better. They have to play as a more cohesive unit and they have to play with more intensity.

    “This week will be huge for us,” he said, “we’re basically starting over.”

    That’s never a good thing to hear a head coach say, especially in December, but luckily the Illini will go into this week of learning with a 9-2 record.

    “Hopefully, (this week) we can put it together,” Weber said. “We need to find someone who can make a play, someone who we can go to in gut-check time.”

    Indeed they do, because if they can barely hold off UIC in their second home, then it’s doubtful they’ll be able to win many Big Ten games in their real place.

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