Call And Response
During the timeout after Nnanna hit the three to put us up one with 3:30 to go, I left press row. Couldn't take it anymore. I wanted to come out of my seat and high five 13 people, but that's against the rules, so I bailed. The next big three, I was going to be in a place where I could scream.
So I raced around the arena to the Illini section and took a seat in the top row amongst the orange. These people had been so loud all night, and now I was going to be loud with them.
And then there was nothing to be loud about. A few really bad turnovers, Oregon hitting every shot they needed to, and, if I recall correctly, only free throws for the Illini the rest of the way. I didn't even have a single shot where I could high five someone. Oregon pushed out to a lead, their crowd danced, and I got that old familiar feeling of shuffling my feet walking out dejected while fans celebrate around me. There's good things about joining the crowd, and then there's those things. I felt like I was at a Missouri game in St. Louis, fighting my way through celebrating green people to get back to press row.
When I got back, I had one prevailing thought: I wrote about Illini fans being everywhere yesterday. And then tonight, there they were again. For the first 3/4 of the game, the rowdiest people in the crowd were the people wearing orange. They were maybe 15% of the 10,000 people in attendance, but they were so loud that the Oregon fans were agitated.
Our fans would start an "ILL-INI" chant, and the Oregon fans would scramble to assemble a "LET'S GO DUCKS" cheer to drown them out. It was funny - it almost felt like the Illini fans were cheering for their team, and the Oregon fans were cheering to respond to the Illini fans cheering for their team.
But that was probably just me being me, right? Were the Oregon fans really taking their cues from the orange and blue faithful? Well, Dana Altman thought so. When asked about the Oregon crowd in the postgame press conference, he said this:
"I think the Illini had a lot of people here, and I think it inspired our crowd to get loud."
Nope, not just me being me. We had the call, they had the response. When the opposing coach notices that this "home game" wasn't very "home" because of all these pesky orange people, then yes, I think this is about the largest underground fanbase in the country (see yesterday's post for an explanation).
I was giddy when Altman said that. Here he is, coaching his team in timeouts, noticing the "ILL-INI" that's filling the arena. So I'm sticking with my original statement. Illini fans were cheering their team. Oregon fans were responding to that. Call and response.
And then Oregon turned it on and seemingly hit 85% of their shots the last ten minutes and put us away like they should have all along. And I was left with nothing to cheer about in the Illini section.
But that's OK. I feel pretty good about this one. The Georgia Tech game left me with a bitter taste - this one felt like Oregon woke up just in time to realize that they were the home team with better players and it was time to win. And unfortunately, they decided to do that right when I got to the Illini section.
+ John Groce said in the postgame press conference that in his two years at Illinois, while scouting an opponent, this Oregon team was "one of the top two or three" offensive teams he had scouted. They tried to take away their dribble drives and their ability to get to the line, and "Oregon adjusted and scored anyway like great teams do".
He was also adamant that we have to stop being tentative late in games. He saw two lanes that we chose to drive in the first half that we didn't take in the second half. Said we passed on several shots that we took in the first half. Said that all has to change.
And then he made a Groceism about he wants a team that swings. "We don't went to be a team that takes strike three looking". Love this coach.
+ Since I was only one of four Illini media folks here, I felt like I needed to ask some questions in the postgame press conference.
The first one was awful, and I was rightly put in my place by Rayvonte Rice for it. I said that I knew he transferred to Illinois from Drake to "play on the big stage" like tonight, and I asked what the atmosphere was like for him. He told me that he played in plenty of big time environments at Drake and this was just another opportunity to try to win in front of a hostile crowd. John Groce nodded approvingly at Rice's refusal to downplay Drake. Bad question.
Then I asked Tracy and Ray about the freshmen. How we had three guys with three fouls early in the second half and the freshmen held their own against a ranked Oregon team. Ray answered the question, saying they can see the freshmen getting better and better each day, and they aren't surprised when they step in and contribute.
And then I finally asked a good question. I asked John Groce about Kendrick Nunn, and how he played the most minutes of the freshmen tonight. And Groce was excited to answer. He said that Nunn "keeps getting better and better defensively". And that defense allowed him to go with a four guard attack late in the first half. He said he'd consider going to that again if Nunn keeps giving them minutes like this.
+ I have to pause here and acknowledge something. I'm sitting in the media room as I type this, and the Oregon media guys are being loud. Some might say insanely annoying in a media room that is supposed to be library quiet so people can get work done, but I won't go that far.
Still, the spoiled brattery going on right next to me at this moment is off the charts. These aren't newspaper guys - they're speaking in terms of "we", so they're bloggers and/or recruiting website guys. Writing from the fan angle. And they're complaining about having to cover the Alamo Bowl. "Am I going to gain subscribers for my site by covering the freaking ALAMO BOWL? No. That game is nothing." Then they talked about what bowls they would and wouldn't cover, and how annoying they are. And then they topped it off with a discussion of how many people would get fired if they lose the bowl game.
If they only knew who they were sitting next to. Guh, that sounds awful. I mean this: if only they know what I would give to cover the Alamo Bowl. I'd quit my job and sell my house and buy and RV and paint it with IlliniBoard colors and set up a mobile office in San Antonio for the entire month of December. Heck, I'm here in Portland covering my team. And they're put off by playing Texas in the Alamo Bowl. Poor guys.
+ My Christmas wish list for this team is for Nnanna Egwu to develop one, just one, low post go-up-strong move. Maybe the coaches have given up on that developing and have encouraged him to fade away every time. But I just want one move. One quick turn-as-soon-as-you-catch-it. Just one. I know we all think it, but I need to say it just one more time. One post move. One. It would change his entire game (and open up the fadeaway that every team is clued in on).
+ My main takeaway from this trip to Portland: Illini fans, man. They're ILL-ing me in the airport. They're stopping me at outlet malls when I'm wearing my Illini fleece. And they're noising-up an NBA arena for a team most everyone knows is probably a bubble team at best.
Can you imagine this fanbase once John Groce has the program rebuilt? Heck, can you imagine this fanbase if we ever built a football program?
17 year locusts, man. Seriously, you'll open your windows one night and all you'll hear are Illini fans chirping.