Illini bounced from the Dance floor by Hilltoppers

PORTLAND, Ore. – The “upset” wasn’t much of one despite what the seeding may have suggested. The No. 12-seeded Western Kentucky controlled most of the game against No. 5-seeded Illinois in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, winning 76-72 at the Rose Garden.

The Illini heard all week from the media that the Hilltoppers would prevail in the dreaded 5-12 matchup. Ultimately, Illinois’ inability to convert on offense – a season-long weakness – and slow down Western Kentucky from the 3-point line was detrimental in their comeback bid.

“You don’t want to lose, and we’re going to be a national story even though everyone predicted us to lose in the first place, but it’s tough,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “And it’s tough without Chester (Frazier), that’s a sad thing for everybody, but nothing you can do. That’s life.”

The Hilltoppers shot 47.4 percent (9-of-19) from the beyond the arc, compared to the Illini’s paltry 27.8 percent (5-of-18). Western Kentucky’s 3-point percentage was the highest by an opponent this season.

The Illini were ranked sixth in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage, holding opponents to 29 percent.

“They spread us out and they play off each other really well,” Illinois guard Trent Meacham said after the game. “They have a lot of guys that can handle the ball well, a lot of guys that can shoot it.

“They caused some mismatches, and they were able to exploit their mismatches and we weren’t able to exploit ours.”

With less than 10 seconds left in the game, Illinois closed the gap to two, 74-72, on a Meacham layup, but the last ditch effort was not enough after trailing 37-28 at the half. The Hilltoppers’ Anthony Sally clinched the win with a pair of free throws.

“They’re a great defense,” Hilltoppers junior center Jeremy Evans said. “We did a good job with our guards of cutting them up and getting good shots.”

Frazier could only watch from the bench as Illinois, who held opponents to shooting 39.3 percent and 56.6 points per game which was 18th and third in the nation respectively, allowed Western Kentucky to hit 48.2 percent from the field. Frazier was ruled out of the game with a right hand injury.

“The sad thing I told our kids, we didn’t play, they took the game to us,” said Weber. “The first thing on the board before the game was set the tone.

“They came at us, and we were a little bit on our heels which was disappointing especially at his point in the season.”

Weber challenged sophomore Demetri McCamey before the game to step up his play and lead the team in Frazier’s absence. McCamey netted 10 points, connecting on 5-of-12 from the field with five assists and four turnovers.

“They hit a couple of threes and we didn’t make shots, and once you don’t do that, you’ve got a team scoring and you get down, there’s nothing really you can do,” McCamey said. “You can try and come back, and I’ll give us credit for fighting and never quitting, but unfortunately we lost the battle.”

Meacham led Illinois with 24 points, two shy of his career high, and converted 4-of-7 from beyond the arc, while Western Kentucky was paced by Steffphon Pettigrew’s 17 points. All five of Western Kentucky’s starters registered double digits.

“We had a great balance tonight,” said Western Kentucky junior guard A.J. Slaughter, who recorded 14 points. “Our outside shot was falling and when it wasn’t, we were able to get some good passes inside.”

Illinois center Mike Tisdale, who averaged 10.5 points per game, was a non-factor, going 0-for-4 from the field.

The rims weren’t kind to the Illini with numerous shots rattling against the iron despite shooting 49.2 percent.

With less than 12 minutes remaining in the game, the Illini managed a mini-run to cut the Hilltoppers’ lead to 50-41; however, two crowd-raising dunks sandwiched around an Illini turnover put the kibosh on any Illinois momentum.

The loss was the second time Illinois was beaten by the No. 12 seed in the tournament (the first in 1990 to Dayton, 88-86). The Illini were the lone No. 5-seed losers for the day.

“(The upset talk) didn’t really affect us at all,” guard Calvin Brock said after the game in the somber locker room. “I mean, everyone has their own opinion. I mean, I have my opinion about a couple games also, so that didn’t affect us at all. We just went out and underestimated them and they took advantage of it and made their shots.”

For Meacham, Frazier, Brock (14 points, 10 rebounds) and C.J. Jackson, it was the last time wearing the Orange and Blue, who finished the season 24-10.

“It’s tough to swallow, but we didn’t give up,” Meacham said. “None of these guys gave up. At least we have some pride in that.

“They played with more effort, more energy for more of the game.”