Tough times aside, Illini grab victory



By Erin Foley

A visit from Dee Brown and Luther Head was just what a sell-out Assembly Hall crowd needed Sunday to remind them of better days. Amid the controversy regarding the late-night car accident that left Jamar Smith and Brian Carlwell with severe concussions, the duo’s presence gave Illini fans a reason not to hang their heads for the first time in nearly a week.

From their floor bleacher seats, Brown and Head, in Champaign because of the NBA’s All-Star break, watched as the Illini were able to put aside the off-the-court distractions and find a way to win a 48-37 decision against Northwestern. The Illini (19-9, 7-6) also moved one step closer to their goal of 21 wins.

Having the former Illini back on campus was something head coach Bruce Weber said the players appreciated.

“They made the effort to come down on their one weekend (off),” Weber said. “They’ve played 52 games and they get one weekend off. Obviously, they love the University and the basketball program and they’re part of our family, so it’s good to have them around.”

While the Illini’s focus was on finding a way to gut out a victory, Weber said the accident wore on the team, especially sophomore Chester Frazier, who is Smith’s roommate. He compared the Illini to a dysfunctional family, and said that if the game was to be played earlier in the week, they would not have been able because of their lack of practice time.

“The mental strain on the kids, the unknowns, all that stuff, it really did take a toll,” Weber said. “Just like any other time you have a major controversy, adversity or tragedy, only time heals it. Each day we got a little better, but we just weren’t sharp.”

Carlwell, who was released from Carle Foundation Hospital early Friday afternoon, watched the game from the end of the bench. Fans held large signs that read “Get well, BC” and “Be strong, No. 31,” while the back of the Krush hoop scoop featured a giant number 21.

“It was good to have Brian Carlwell here; that was positive,” Weber said. “When he came to practice, it was one of the unknowns, a sense of, ‘Hey, he’s here, he’s walking around.’ That was a nice boost.”

Weber said while Carlwell is anxious to return to Illinois’ lineup, his recovery will be slow. Recently, Carlwell jogged for a bit and had some shooting practice, and is expected to return to class sometime toward the end of the week.

“He’s recovering well and trying to get back out there as soon as possible,” forward Warren Carter said. “Knowing that he will be OK, that takes a big load off our back.”

Sophomore guard Jamar Smith, who will sit out the remainder of the season, was not in attendance at the game. When asked if Smith was on a suspension, Weber said it could not be labeled as that. Weber is hoping the Illini can help him get through the situation, and said they will not turn their back on Smith. A meeting between Weber and Smith will be set up in the coming days, Weber said.

“He went home with his family to get through a tough time; that’s where we are at,” Weber said. “He’s still part of our family. I just felt his grandparents, his mom, they needed to help him and I could give him some attention, but I could not give him the attention they could.

“When he gets back in town, now we have to help him, that’s what we will do; we’ll try, at least.”

The Illini held the Wildcats (12-14, 2-11 Big Ten) to a season-low 30.6 percentage from the field. Tied at 25 early in the second half, senior Rich McBride hit two three-pointers to spark an 11-4 run.

In all, he scored 15 points, while Carter, who sprained his ankle in practice late last week, had 10 points.

Frazier, who recently found out that his father was diagnosed with cancer, had seven rebounds to go along with six assists. Frazier also dislocated a finger in practice earlier in the week.

“For the kid to come back and be our leading rebounder and to have six assists, he just plays with great energy and passion,” Weber said. “He is obviously doing this with a heavy heart and not much practice time.”