Heading into SIUE's game Monday at the University of Illinois I will admit I did not have much hope for the Cougars. SIUE was sloppy in its two exhibition games, but still won each comfortably by 14 points. Illinois was a bit different from MacMurray and Blackburn. After all, this was the "House of Paign" or so the video board and banners on the tunnel outside of the locker room told us. Last year, SIUE lost three games to Big Ten opponents including a 61-point spanking at Iowa. In 2009, SIUE felt the pain and lost 96-69 in this very arena. I hoped this night would be different and in some degree it was.
I have always hated Illinois. Growing up in this state I have seen a lot of orange over the years. Those stupid chief shirts are everywhere, even on the campus of SIUE, which is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Champaign/Urbana. I never really understood that.
Even though I cannot stand Illinois I do have some amount of respect for their head coach Bruce Weber, the architect behind some pretty solid NCAA tournament teams at SIU Carbondale, a team I used to like until I started going to college in my hometown of Edwardsville. Illinois obviously does too. The guy has his own locker room in Assembly Hall, which I thought was bizarre.
Maybe it was the night or the opponent and I thought the same thing last time I was covering a game there for the Alestle, SIUE's student newspaper. Despite a crowd of 13,000 people and what is described as "one of the best student sections in the country," the atmosphere is quite boring. Noise doesn't exactly bounce off the walls in the massive domed building. All of the Indian ritual tradition stuff is over my head and I find it annoying.
On this night, the Cougars were looking to do something they have never done in program history, which is pull a Red-Line upset. Just talking to some of the players and seeing what they had to say on Twitter, I knew they were confident. SIUE was not going to go into Assembly Hall intimidated, especially this group. You see, the vibe of this team has changed. In the past, SIUE appeared to have drag along with no emotion. The Cougars are undersized but are more athletic. The entire team, 1-15 is close off the court and it shows. They have not earned anything, as they have been picked No. 341 of 344 teams by some publications. Nobody really knows that this team while young, is different.
Even playing 8-on-5 basketball on the road, (Illinois was whistled for just 10 fouls including three charges) the Cougars showed me something. They were determined and hung with the Illini. You could tell SIUE's bus did not arrive at the arena until shortly after 5 for the 7:30 p.m. tipoff (We beat them there) because they started out slow, shooting just 1-14 from the field. They still played the best defense I have seen them play in a while. Illinois was simply too tall, featuring 7-foot-1 Miles Leonard, 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu and 6-foot-8 Tyler Griffey. The tallest player on SIUE's roster is 6-foot-7 Derian Shaffer. The Illini outrebounded the Cougars by 20 (45-25) but the defense made up for it and SIUE trailed by just seven midway through the second half before an 11-0 run evaporated any hope. The 20 points D.J. Richardson scored to lead Illinois seemed relatively quiet, just because of how their bigs controlled the game not with their strength, because they had none, but their lankiness. Illinois had 11 blocked shots. SIUE shot 29 percent from the field, which did not help their cause. If officials in Big Ten arenas called it both ways and SIUE shot better they would have had a real shot at winning this one. It was closer than the 20 points makes it seem. The 66 points allowed is the fewest SIUE has allowed a Big Ten opponent in its history, and that is something I can hold my head high about. SIUE proved something to myself, 13,000 fans expecting to win by 60 points and hopefully a few others. It often starts with a loss.
at ILLINOIS 66, SIU EDWARDSVILLE 46 11/14/2011
SIU EDWARDSVILLE 0-1 (0-0) -- C. Wickware 4-8 0-0 12; M. Yelovich 5-13 1-2 13; D. Shaffer 1-10 0-0 2; J. Jones 3-12 2-2 8; K. Davis 3-8 0-0 8; K. Stineman 0-0 1-2 1; C. Joy 0-3 0-0 0; R. Reed 0-0 0-0 0; Z. Schneider 1-2 0-0 2; D. Boarden 0-1 0-0 0; M. Birts 0-0 0-0 0; K. Heck 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 17-57 4-6 46. ILLINOIS 2-0 (0-0) -- D. Richardson 7-12 3-4 20; T. Griffey 3-6 4-5 10; S. Maniscalco 2-4 2-3 8; B. Paul 2-9 2-3 7; M. Leonard 2-5 4-4 8; T. Abrams 2-5 0-0 5; J. Bertrand 1-5 2-2 4; M. Shaw 0-1 0-2 0; N. Egwu 2-4 0-1 4; I. Djimde 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-51 17-24 66.
Three-point goals: SIUE 8-22 (M. Yelovich 2-6; D. Boarden 0-1; J. Jones 0-3; C. Wickware 4-6; K. Davis 2-3; C. Joy 0-3), ILL 7-19 (S. Maniscalco 2-4; J. Bertrand 0-1; T. Griffey 0-2; B. Paul 1-4; D. Richardson 3-6; T. Abrams 1-2); Rebounds: SIUE 25 (J. Jones 8), ILL 45 (T. Griffey 14); Assists: SIUE 9 (M. Yelovich 2), ILL 15 (B. Paul 4); Total Fouls -- SIUE 22, ILL 10; Fouled Out: SIUE-None; ILL-None.