I got off the plane in St. Louis at 3:26. Got my bag at 3:38. Got on the parking shuttle at 3:44, two hours and 16 minutes before tipoff (it's a 2:45 drive from Lambert to Champaign). I texted my wife, saying I was thinking of not going to the game. She texted back right when I got to the car in the parking lot - 3:52 pm according to the text:
We will probably lose but you gotta show up.
U took this flight just so you could go to this game.
I love her.
I hit the road at 3:54. Made up, ahem, made up some time on the drive, and pulled into the parking lot at the State Farm Center at exactly 6:29. I had missed the first 11 minutes of game time, but I showed up. I hit the bathroom, watched from the 7:00 mark until the 2:00 mark while standing in one of the concourses (it took forever to get a whistle for the under-four timeout in the first half), and then made it to my seat with two minutes left in the half. I was late, but I showed up.
And then Illinois Basketball showed up.
This was, unquestionably, the most Assembly Hall environment in State Farm Center history. No, it wasn't a sellout, so it didn't reach the decibel levels of those great games of the past. But this place can still get loud, and Krush can still go insane, and, thankfully, Illinois Basketball can still knock off top ten opponents on ESPN.
I'll get to Ayo's two threes in a moment, but first I want to talk about Ayo's two steals in the first half (right about the time when I got to the game - 0:53 mark of this video). You thought about Frankie vs. Iowa, didn't you? I did. No, they weren't back-to-back like The Frank Williams Show. There was no behind-the-back pass either. But when he got the second steal , made the layup, and Tom Izzo took a timeout, leading the State Farm Center to go insane, you thought about it, right? Somewhere I could hear Dickie V saying "Get a T.O., baby".
In the second half, I couldn't sit still. With about six minutes left, I left my press seat and headed up to the empty seats at the top. I could no longer not make noise. Win or lose, I needed to open the release valve.
We all knew the Michigan State comeback was coming, and when they pushed out to a three point lead, we all thought it was over. Then, four plays I will remember for a long, long time. (When is the last time we had plays you'll remember?) In order:
- Andres Feliz makes a layup and gets fouled. Hits the free throw to complete the three point play and tie the game.
- On the other end, Michigan State is lining up for one of their patented dagger three pointers but Aaron Jordan blocks it.
- Giorgi grabs the rebound, we go the other way, and after a nifty feed from Trent, Ayo nails a three.
- Then Ayo gets the steal, we come back down to our end, the crowd is on it's feet, the shot clock is waning, and Ayo hits a second three to push us to a six point lead with 1:54 remaining.
This place (including some dude pacing near the top) went insane. The sound in here when Michigan State took that timeout was a time machine back to the glory days. If I was directing this movie, I'd insert 35 flashbacks in five seconds as our main character tossed and turned and tried to regain consciousness. Dee sitting on the floor against Wake Forest, the Battle dunk against Georgia Tech, even the Arias Davis three against Michigan State in 1998. For a moment, we were back there.
Now, there's a long road to get back there, of course. We're currently 8-15 on the season. Long road from 8-15 to Dee sitting on the floor against Wake Forest.
But win on Saturday and somehow we'll be in 8th place in the Big Ten. In the post yesterday, I looked at how an 8-8 finish was possible after a 4-12 start. I had this one as a certain loss, which would mean... 9-7 over the final 16 games is possible? I'm getting ahead of myself.
BUT THAT'S THE FUN PART. If you beat #9, you get to get ahead of yourself. It's 100% allowed. In the span of 11 days, we've beaten KenPom #4, #20, and #27. I don't know how you go from 4-12 to that, but we've gone from 4-12 to that.
Well, I do know. Everything starts to click. Such as:
- Ayo and Trent had great games at the same time! Ayo with 24 (and three huge steals), Trent with 15 (and three huge steals). That's what we were all dreaming about this summer.
- Giorgi continues his 99th percentile play. The odds of him being this good (given his offers and his ranking) were very, very low. But we have a legitimate low post scorer (and dunker?) for the next 3.25 seasons.
- A big part of this "win three of four" run has been the play of Andres Feliz. His scoring the last four games: 15, 11, 8, and 10. Nine assists and two turnovers. Steady defense.
- Speaking of steady defense, I think this is what the scheme is supposed to do. Well, I know that this is what the scheme is supposed to do. 24 Michigan State turnovers means Michigan State takes 43 shots and Illinois takes 58 shots. And when that happens, and they shoot 51% and you only shoot 45%, and they make five more free throws than you and out-rebound you by five... you still win 79-74.
This all points to one thing: next year. Offseason hope (and hype). When you beat #9, you can start to do that. I'm starting to believe that this is a team that can go to the tournament and do some damage:
The three double-digit scorers on this team: sophomore, freshman, freshman. The eight man rotation we've settled into these last four games? Senior, junior, junior, sophomore, sophomore, freshman, freshman, freshman. You don't really need to squint to see it anymore.
But that's not even the best part of tonight. The best part of tonight was being here. The best part of tonight was watching the Krush.
Think about some senior in Krush. Think about what she's been through. Her four years have been 15-19, 18-14, 14-18, 8-15. Illinois Basketball - ILLINOIS BASKETBALL - has been 55-66 during her four years. All of those memories we have? She doesn't have any of those. That student from the early 2000's who saw two home losses in four years? They don't know her pain.
So to see the Krush rush the court? To watch the highlights and see them going insane in the background after Ayo's second three? That's the best part of tonight. Finally, a moment. These fans keep showing up and we keep losing and they keep showing up. And not just the fans here, but the fans at home who tell their wives "I don't know why, but I'm going to watch another Illini game tonight". We watch (and we show up) hoping that something like this happens. And it never happens. And then, tonight, it happened.
Illinois Basketball - the Illinois Basketball we've been telling people is still out there somewhere - showed up.