Second-half drought leads to season-ending loss

Head coach Bruce Weber speaks at press conference after Illniois fell to Virginia Tech, 52-54, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, March 16, 2007. Adam Babcock

By Erin Foley

COLUMBUS, Ohio – After all of the struggles the Illini endured to make the NCAA Tournament, a second-half breakdown, one in which they gave up a 13-point lead, was not the way they envisioned their exit. It was, however, similar to the way 10 of 12 losses came this season. The Illini, the 12 seed in the West Region, was held scoreless for the final 4:27 as Virginia Tech went on to win 54-52 at Nationwide Arena on Friday night.

“I thought our kids played with a great deal of courage, a great deal of heart,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “We talked about defending them and we did it, we just didn’t take care of the ball.

“And we just couldn’t find a way to get a basket, get a call, get something to go our way down the stretch.”

A swarming full-court Virginia Tech press disrupted Illinois’ offense, which up until early in the second half had been in control. The Illini (23-12) shot 48.0 percent (12of-25 shooting) from the field in the first half, but after senior Rich McBride hit the floor hard after an attempted three-pointer with 12:46 remaining, his long-range shot was never an option. Following the game, McBride said the pain came from cramps and from dehydration.

Illinois scored just two field goals in the closing five minutes and thirty-three seconds. Although McBride (14 points, 4-of-9 shooting) thought it looked as if the Illini would be able to put the game away when they were up 47-34, he said he knew the Hokies (22-11) would put up a fight. Senior Warren Carter, who had a team-high 15 points, to go along with five rebounds, attributed the Illini’s loss to their nerves getting the best of them, in addition, to their “chill” mentality.

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“We chill a lot, to start playing not to lose and keep playing to win,” Carter said. “We stopped being the aggressor down the stretch, and we were just hoping that our lead didn’t slip.”

During the first half, the Illini held the Hokies, who had their lowest shooting percentage of the season (35.7 percent, 15-of-42 shooting) while winning, to a season-low 21 points.

“That might be the best defensive team we’ve played against all season,” Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenburg said. “They’re as hard to penetrate on as any team we’ve played against.”

While the press disrupted Illinois’ game plan, Weber thought the result of the game was decided on bad passes, and on extra passes that didn’t have to be thrown. He felt as if the turnovers came after Illinois broke Virginia Tech’s press and got steals, but then couldn’t guard the Hokies in “three on two situations, four on one situations.”

“They are aggressive; they average nine steals a game almost, they got 11, obviously, that’s the difference in the game.”

Feeling as if he was the one to blame for those turnovers, Carter said his “careless” mistakes might have rattled some of the underclassmen.

Although Illinois squandered its lead, Weber said he was happy to see that the team battled to the last play and didn’t quit. Losing the game down the stretch, though, was typical of the way the season had gone, he said.

Getting another win in the Tournament may have eased the pain of some of the season’s ups-and-downs, but Carter said the Illini put themselves in the situation to lose the game against Virginia Tech, and but just couldn’t crawl out of the hole.

“We had the talent to get the win,” Carter said. “As Coach said, ‘Life isn’t fair.’ But I do wish things would have gone better for myself and my teammates, but the ball just didn’t bounce our way.”