The Dance ends too early

PORTLAND, Ore. — The “upset” wasn’t much of one despite what the seeding may have suggested. The No. 12-seeded Western Kentucky Hilltoppers 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 were detrimental in the Illini’s comeback bid. The Hilltoppers shot 47 percent from the beyond the arc, compared to the Illini’s paltry 29 percent. The Illini were ranked sixth in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage, holding opponents to 29 percent.

With less than 10 seconds left in the game, Illinois closed the gap to two, 74-72, on a Trent Meacham layup, but the last ditch comeback was not enough, as the Hilltoppers’ Anthony Sally sealed the win with two free throws.

Illinois senior guard Chester Frazier could only watch from the bench as Illinois, which held opponents to shooting 39.3 percent from the field and 56.6 points per game during the season, allowed Western Kentucky to shoot 48 percent from the field. Frazier was ruled out of the game with a right hand injury.

Illinois head coach Bruce Weber challenged sophomore Demetri McCamey before the game to step up his play and lead the team in Frazier’s absence. While McCamey had 10 points, he went only 5-of-12 from the field. He had seven assists.

Trent Meacham led Illinois with 24 points and converted 4-of-7 from beyond the arc, while Western Kentucky was paced by Steffphon Pettigrew’s 17 points.

The rims weren’t kind to the Illini. The Orange and Blue shot 49 percent on the night, with the ball circling in and out and clanking off the rim.

With less than 12 minutes remaining in the game, the Illini managed a mini-run to cut the Hilltoppers’ lead to 50-41; but two crowd-raising dunks sandwiched around an Illini turnover put an end to 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).

For Meacham, Frazier, Calvin Brock and C.J. Jackson, it was the last time wearing the orange and blue. Illinois finished the season 24-10.