Hall crowd carries Illini to victory

By Lucas Deal

Right from the get-go, the Assembly Hall had a different feel. It wasn’t necessarily louder, or even more hostile. It was just different.

You see, on Tuesday night, Illinois played host to No. 23 Indiana, a team led by Illinois’ most recent nemesis, Kelvin Sampson. Sampson has become a bit of a marked man in the Land of Lincoln ever since he stole Bruce Weber’s prized recruit from the 2007 class, Eric Gordon.

Gordon originally committed to Illini in late 2005. But after Sampson arrived in Bloomington, Ind., last summer he used his new contacts to sway Gordon away from Illinois. It was a move that rocked Illini Nation. On Tuesday night, Weber and his boys went out looking for a little revenge.

Turns out the crowd wanted some too, as the Illini faithful stood nearly the entire game and willed the undermanned Illini to a gritty 51-43 win over the Hoosiers.

“The crowd was tremendous tonight, and they were into it,” Weber said. “We normally never get runs. But (today) I think there was obviously some extra adrenaline, and when we got back into the game they kind of jumped in and carried us.”

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    It was the type of performance the Assembly Hall has been known for but hasn’t shown much of in recent weeks.

    The Orange Krush used a barrage of cheers and heckles to frustrate Sampson, who spent most of the second half pacing the Indiana bench like an angry guy who had just lost his keys.

    At one point, after repeated Hoosier lay-ups clanked off the rim and led to another empty possession, Sampson could even be seen jumping up and down on the sideline, lobbying a member of the officiating crew for a foul.

    The crowd loved every bit of it. But as much as the 16,618 fans in attendance may have wanted to see Sampson fail, I believe they had much more fun watching the Illini succeed.

    I say that because, from what I could tell, there wasn’t a bigger cheer all night than when Illini senior guard Rich McBride buried a pair of long threes to bulge Illinois’ two-point lead to eight early in the second half.

    The second three forced Sampson into a timeout, and McBride and his teammates were mobbed on the floor by the rest of the Illini bench while making their way towards the huddle.

    The Illini crowd also erupted with pride later in the second half when Chester Frazier threaded the needle to big man Shaun Pruitt for the game-clinching dunk-and-one with 2:18 to play.

    It was a play that was so important and so well executed that, when Pruitt stepped up to the line for his free throw a minute later, the place still hadn’t calmed down. Not surprisingly, Pruitt missed bad.

    Noise does that sometimes.

    And even though Weber hates to see his team miss free throws, especially in a close game, something tells me he’s a little more understanding about it when he can’t even hear himself think. At least in that case his guys have a reason for banging one off the glass.

    Yep, the Assembly Hall was rocking with anti-Hoosier love last night. And even though that might not be the best reason to get excited, it seemed to have worked.

    Michigan State will be in town on Jan. 30. Let’s hope there’s still a little bit of Hoosier hate left over when they get here because it’ll be awfully tough to beat a nice guy like Tom Izzo without it.

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