Orange Krush embarked on its annual road trip, taking in a loss at Iowa
February 26, 2015
Much like Illinois’ 2014-15 basketball season, Wednesday’s Orange Krush road trip to watch the Illini take on Iowa in Iowa City didn’t exactly go according to plan.
And I’m not just referring to the 68-60 defeat Illinois (17-11, 7-5 Big Ten) suffered at the hands of the Hawkeyes (18-10, 9-6).
The annual excursion is usually a chance for 100 members of Illini hoops’ charitable student section to travel to another Big Ten campus and immerse themselves in another school’s traditions during pre-game hours, while posing as fans of the opposing team.
The undercover part of the mission is supposed to end at tip-off, when they rip off their enemy garb to reveal what every other Big Ten ticket office works to prevent: a large group of screaming, chanting, orange-clad Illinois students in their arena.
At 2 p.m. Wednesday, I joined 99 fellow students in Champaign and boarded one of two buses bound for Iowa City, and everyone was eager to follow that general script. But much like injury, illness and insubordination have thrown this Illini season off course, Mother Nature had other plans.
Whispers of a snowstorm began to circulate as the Seth MacFarlane movie “Ted” played on the charter bus, and sure enough, we were right in the middle of it by the time we reached Peoria. As the snow got thicker and the buses slower, Orange Krush leadership began to exchange nervous texts.
Reassuring messages to the tune of “we’ll be fine” and “we’re gonna make it” were soon replaced with “we’re done” as the buses got stuck in a traffic jam near the Iowa border around 6:30. The original itinerary called for an arrival time of 6:30 in Iowa City, giving everyone time to wander around in disguise before tip-off at 8 p.m.
The constant snow forced the convoy to hover around 45 miles per hour, and with each passing minute it was apparent that the Krush’s patented tip-off “reveal” was in jeopardy. Just before we rolled into Iowa City at 7:50, Orange Krush president Hannah Taylor made an announcement.
“We’re going to do the reveal after the 16-minute timeout,” she said.
Credit the charter company for getting us there in one piece, but you really underestimate how long it takes to park two large buses until you’re about to be late for something. Krush unloaded from the bus and power walked across the street to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, with about half of the members making it in time for the opening tip.
The last-minute audible paid off, as the whole group was situated by the 16-minute mark. We were seated behind the basket, directly opposite from Iowa’s “Hawk’s Nest” student section. And when the 100-deep contingent of Illinois students pulled off their black and yellow to reveal orange, the Krush got the reaction it wanted.
Carver-Hawkeye Arena is not an especially big place, and the snowstorm probably cut the expected fan turnout in half. So when the Krush started making noise, Iowa fans took notice, and they were not amused. Krush’s pre-game theatrics might have been ruined by the snow, but the game was on, and NCAA tournament hopes were at stake.
The Illini seemed to take notice too, and went on a mini-scoring run right after the reveal. The first half was a back-and-forth affair, and the Hawkeyes took a one-point lead into halftime. Ahmad Starks and Rayvonte Rice carried Illinois in the first half, combining for 21 of the team’s 32 points.
Starks and Rice were the only two Illini to do much of anything in the second half, either, and they finished with 19 and 20 points, respectively. Nobody on Illinois could stop Iowa’s Aaron White, who finished with a career-high 29 points. White scored from all over the floor, converting dunks, threes and nearly everything in between.
The difference in the game was Illinois’ inability to break the Hawkeyes’ full-court pressure, as they turned up the intensity in the second half. Starting point guard Jaylon Tate was out sick for the Illini in this one. His poise with the ball and calming presence on offense was noticeably absent. Illinois’ ball-handling and decision-making was especially sub-par following a Starks three that cut the second-half Iowa lead to 47-46.
The full-court press got the best of the Illini, and the Hawkeyes went on a 15-4 run that was punctuated by a one-handed slam from 6-foot Iowa point guard Mike Gesell.
The Krush never stopped having fun, as Illinois kept it somewhat interesting until the end. Much of their frustration with the game playing out before them was directed at the referees, who had another characteristically poor day at the office. Unsurprisingly, Krush chants of, “These refs suck!” didn’t affect the refs’ decisions, nor the final outcome of the game.
As the final seconds ticked away, a good number of Iowa fans turned back to face our section, thirsty for blood and grinning at the Krush. After all, the joke’s on them, right? They had just traveled nearly six hours to see the Illini lose while greatly reducing their margin for error for gaining an NCAA tournament berth, and a six-hour drive home still awaited.
But Iowa fans underestimate this group. Many of these students have watched the losses pile up for both the Illinois football and basketball programs during their time on campus, and they still chose to go on this mid-week trip without hesitation. Post-game Hawkeye taunts and tweets were mostly met with a laugh.
The charter buses pulled into Champaign at 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, and Krush members trudged through the early-morning tundra back to their dorms and apartments. Exams, classes and jobs (attended on little sleep) stood between them and the Illini’s next game on Saturday.
Illinois is now on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble, and the potential of a second straight NIT appearance is ominously hovering over the rest of the season.
Not everything went according to plan on the 2015 Orange Krush road trip. But I’ll bet you couldn’t find a single Krush member who wouldn’t do it all over again.
Alex is a junior in AHS