Invitational win an early test for Illini



By Jeremy Werner

Illinois coach Bruce Weber doubted Chester Frazier’s ability to play in the South Padre Invitational after a deep thigh bruise in a practice session left the senior guard hobbled and barely able to walk.

Weber again questioned Frazier’s status after he played a gutsy 42 minutes in the Illini’s 69-63 overtime semifinal victory over Kent State on Friday. On Saturday, the Illinois coach learned that nothing short of amputating the leg would keep Frazier off the floor. The senior leader played 36 minutes in Illinois’ 48-44 championship game victory over Tulsa.

“No one else would have played either game, to be honest, on our team,” Weber said. “He plays through a lot of pain. He loves to play. He plays to win.”

Frazier earned all-tournament honors not because of his scoring prowess – he scored 11 points in two games – but because of his hustle and ability to fill up the box score. In two games, Frazier grabbed 15 rebounds and dealt out 16 assists while only committing four turnovers.

For Frazier, there was no doubt that he would see the court.

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“I just didn’t want to sit out a championship game,” Frazier said. “He asked me if I could play. I told him, ‘Yeah,’ and just kind of took it from there.”

Mike Tisdale was named tournament MVP after scoring a career-high 20 points against Kent State and a team-high 12 points against Tulsa. The 7-foot-1-inch sophomore came up with clutch performances, hitting two free throws to send the Illini into overtime against Kent State and making the go-ahead jumper that sealed a win against Tulsa.

“It’s pretty big,” Tisdale said of Illinois’ second South Padre Invitational win in four years. “I think we all played well in all three games actually. We really played hard and showed some heart.”

Tisdale’s performance was especially important since Illinois’ perimeter players struggled. Demetri McCamey and Trent Meacham, two of the Illini’s top three scorers, shot a combined 2-for-19 from the three-point line and combined for 30 points in the two games.

Tisdale wasn’t the only post player to come up big for Illinois. Mike Davis tallied 17 points and 13 rebounds against Kent State, while Richard Semrau came off the bench to score nine points in 13 minutes against Tulsa.

The tournament was an early test for an Illinois team playing with a chip on its shoulder after missing out on the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time in eight seasons. The Illini are attempting to build an NCAA Tournament resume after defeating Kent State, an NCAA Tournament team last year, and Tulsa, the defending College Basketball Invitational champions.

“I hope it’s a nice confidence builder, but we have a long way to go,” Weber said. “I think the key is how hungry they are and how they have a hunger to improve and keep getting better. That’s the key. If you stay the same, people are going to go by you.”

The Illini have little time to revel in their tournament victory after returning from South Padre Island, Texas. Weber and company host Clemson (7-0) on Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Illinois lost in the Challenge the past two years to Maryland and has a 3-6 record lifetime in the battle of the conferences. The ACC has won every challenge in the rivalry’s nine-year history.

“We need to win for ourselves obviously,” Weber said. “But it’d also be nice if the Big Ten can win the Challenge and get us some positive publicity as a league. It’s big in a lot of ways, because it’s something that’s talked about for the next two or three months…It’d be nice if not only us but everybody turned it around.”