Seniors exit Hall as winners

 

 

By Jason Grodsky

Illinois forward Brian Randle knew this day would be different than any other in his career at Illinois.

The fifth-year senior had a little trouble breathing when he woke up Saturday morning and felt more nervous than he ever had before a game – but with good reason. Saturday’s game was Randle’s final game wearing an Illinois uniform at home in front of the Illini faithful.

“When I woke up (on Saturday), I almost had a panic attack,” Randle said. “When I got to the arena, I grabbed a stick of gum, and I never do that, so that’s when I knew I was nervous.”

Randle, along with fellow seniors Shaun Pruitt and Chris Hicks, took the court for the final time at Assembly Hall on Saturday against Minnesota. With the help of their teammates, all three ended their careers at home with a 67-58 win over the Golden Gophers.

Pruitt finished the game with seven points, while Randle added four points and grabbed a season-high 12 rebounds.

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    The senior players and managers were honored in a traditional pregame ceremony, each accompanied by family members as they walked onto the court at Assembly Hall for the final time. Head coach Bruce Weber and Athletic Director Ron Guenther presented each player with his own framed jersey in appreciation for his respective efforts since arriving on campus.

    “You wish all your seniors could get double-doubles and have great games, but everyone stepped up where we needed it,” Weber said. “My goal was to get Chris Hicks in the game, and we were able to do that at the end.”

    Randle and Pruitt started the game for the Illini, but Hicks, in his third season with the Illini after making the team as a walk-on, was left on the bench in favor of guards Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Demetri McCamey.

    With Hicks not among the starting five, chants of “We want Chris Hicks” from the Orange Krush did not take long to resonate throughout the student section. Hicks did enter the game with less than a minute left, and, with less than three seconds remaining, drained a long three-pointer – his first field goal of the season – earning the crowd’s loudest cheer of the night.

    “Just to have ‘Illinois’ across your chest and play in front of the fans, (they’ve) made a little kid’s dream come true,” Hicks said on the court as he addressed the crowd after the game.

    Following the final buzzer, the three players each took a few seconds to thank the fans for their support in what has been a largely disappointing season for the team. Pruitt apologized for his role in the home loss to Indiana eariler this season, in which the senior missed crucial free-throw attempts at the end of the game that would have sealed an Illini win.

    “It was emotional,” Randle said. “I had to hold back the tears and cut my speech short.”

    Pruitt reaches milestone

    Illini big man Shaun Pruitt needed just two points to join an exclusive club in Illinois basketball history, and it did not take very long for the team’s leading scorer to get there.

    With Illinois’ first basket of the game, Pruitt became the 41st player in Illinois history to score 1,000 points in his career. The Aurora, Ill., native made a layup at the 17:42 mark of the first half and by the end of the game would move into 40th place on the all-time scoring list, surpassing former Illini Govoner Vaughn, who played from 1957 until 1960.

    “I haven’t been involved in a loss on Senior Day,” Pruitt said. “In past years, I’ve done my best to help send guys out for a win and everybody stepped up and helped us get a win in our last game.”

    Chief makes a surprise return

    At halftime Saturday, the Illinois band began its traditional performance of the “Three-in-One” but was soon joined by a familiar face.

    An Illinois fan dressed in a full Chief outfit made his way around the top concourse, walking with arms folded and stopping only to raise his arms during the “Hail to the Orange.”

    The appearance of the Chief brought the Assembly Hall crowd to its feet and earned a standing ovation. The University retired the Chief last year, its last true performance coming on Feb. 21, 2007.

    When asked by reporters if he knew about the Chief impersonator, Weber acknowledged that he didn’t know about it and jokingly asked if the fan was “rushed out in a straight jacket.”