I was tweeting about this at lunch, and someone suggested I make this a blog post, and I have an hour here, so why not? This is a collection of random memories from watching Illini NCAA Tournament games over the past 35 years. In no particular order.
Illinois vs. Tulsa, 1995 First Round
The Shea Seals Game. I'm on spring break in Park City, Utah. We were an 11-seed - on the bubble all season and barely squeaked in - so it kind of felt like free basketball. Tulsa was favored, Tulsa had the best player on the court (Shea Seals), yet we had the lead at halftime because Kiwane was dominating. I'm in some sports bar in Utah (at the time you had to have a "sponsor" at the bar - some "member" of the bar who would vouch for you ordering a beer. Not sure if that's still the case today).
Anyway, Tulsa slowly pulls away in the second half. I want to say Shelly Clark was in foul trouble? Maybe Jerry Hester? Tulsa puts it away late and my main memory is this group of Purdue fans at the same bar. Their game started after ours, and I remember developing this hatred for Purdue fans because I'm over here lamenting us letting our lead slip away and they're hootin' and hollerin'.
Purdue barely won that game. Let me go look it up. They beat Wisconsin-Green Bay 49-48. As they left the bar, I remember one Purdue fan yelling "one down, five more to go". He was convinced they'd win it all. (They lost to Memphis in the next round.) I still think of him every time Purdue bows out of the Tournament.
Illinois vs. Kansas, 2001 Sweet 16
This one I just tweeted about. I had purchased a home in the Hi Pointe neighborhood of St. Louis. Spent the fall of 2000 fixing it up (tore out paneling, put in drywall - I actually used to have initiative). March 2001 my friend Dave The Science Teacher is in town for some Science Teacher convention and he's staying with me. We're watching the Kansas game (we are the 1-seed, Kansas is the 4-seed).
We lead by 12 at halftime and, really, everything is clicking. That was a good Kansas team (Hinrich/Collison/Gooden) but we were better. Frankie had it rolling, Lucas Johnson was driving them crazy - Illinois was in command.
And then in the second half, Kansas went on a little run. The way I remember it, Bradford missed a bunch of threes (I think Dave yelled STOP SHOOTING) and Kansas starts to climb back in it. Dave looks over at me and says "aren't you nervous" and, in a very, very rare moment of sporting confidence, I said "not worried at all - we have Frankie".
Frankie then took over. They had no answer. We push the lead back to double digits and win by 16. The Frank Williams Show in full effect with 30 points. Man, those were the days.
Illinois vs. Long Beach State, 1993 First Round
I watched this one in my room at my fraternity house on campus (I lived in the house my sophomore year). A bunch of guys were watching in the basement, but I needed to watch this one in my room. Sometimes I just need to be alone with my thoughts.
Remember, this was the first NCAA Tournament game since the Bruce Pearl sanctions. We would have been in the field in 1991 but we were on probation. Then in 1992 we had a losing season. So making the field again in 1993 was a big deal (to me). And this game would be the only NCAA Tournament win of my five years as a student. I used to tell that to people to illustrate just how bad we had it when I was a student. And now we just graduated a senior class without a single bowl game or a single NCAA Tournament appearance.
Anyway, this Long Beach State game. We were the 6-seed, Long Beach State was the 11. And it was supposed to be close. And it was.
I remember two things from this game. 1) Rennie Clemons was the guy who took over for us and led us to the win. And 2) Marc Davison had a huge rebound and putback (I want to say it was an and-1?) to help seal the game late. Deon was Deon (if we could get the ball to him in the low post, he'd either score or get fouled nearly ever time), Rennie had a bunch of assists, and I went downstairs to celebrate with everyone after we (finally) put the game away.
We'd then lose to Billy McCaffery and Vandy two days later and not win another Tournament game until 1997. And I thought that was the low point.
Illinois vs. UNLV, 2011 First Round
I was in Washington DC to watch NCAA Tournament games. Some friends and I had planned the trip months in advance, and it was the only Selection Sunday where I've ever paid close attention to location (I was hoping to get blindly lucky and have Illinois get sent to DC). We weren't sent to DC, but thankfully the Illini game was Friday night and the DC games were Thursday/Saturday.
We picked a great regional. Both title game participants were there. We saw both UConn (as part of the West region) and Butler (as part of the Southeast) advance to the Sweet 16. That included two games of The Kemba Walker Show and two Butler buzzer beaters (the first one to beat Old Dominion, the second one to take down #1 seed Pitt (and it was a buzzer beater free throw because one of Pitt's players though their missed free throw with 1.7 second remaining meant that they still trailed - the game was tied - so he fouled the Butler player who had grabbed the missed FT). If you can ever just choose a weekend and attend some first round games, do it. Last time I did I got to see MTSU take down Michigan State (yay) and Wisconsin beat Xavier with a buzzer-beater three (boo).
Anyway, that Illini game was fun. We completely dominated UNLV from the start and led by 22 at halftime. It was one of those games where I HATED the final score. It ended up 73-62, but we led by 22 with less than five minutes left. We let off the gas, they "cut it" to 11 by the final buzzer, and history sees it as a 70-something to 60-something game. If any game deserved an 81-59 final score, it was that one.
My buddies and I had gone out to eat in DC that Friday night and I left the restaurant early to go back to the hotel room to watch our game (they went to North Carolina and Baylor, so they didn't care about our game). I knew they'd arrive back at the hotel before the game was over, and to be honest, I was kind of dreading it, so a 22-point lead is the perfect game for my peace and quiet to be interrupted. We had this suite in the hotel, so my plan was to close myself in one of the bedrooms and watch solo, but with a big lead, I stayed in the main room and basked in the "man, you guys are just destroying them" comments.
Illinois vs. USC, 1997 First Round
I guess because today is the first day of the Tournament that I'm recalling all of these first round games. 1997 was my first "I'm an adult now, and I'm at work, and this game is on a Thursday afternoon (or was it Friday afternoon?), and I've only been at this company for 2.5 months and can't take vacation days yet, so... how do adults handle this?"
This was pre-March Madness On Demand, obviously. It was almost pre-internet. Here's how things worked in the office at that time:
First off, we had one computer with a modem. It was used to access our company's email account. There weren't individual email accounts - just one for the whole company. That computer could also access the internet, and we used it as a public workstation, so you had your computer at your desk (without the internet) and then everyone could go over to the public computer (with the internet). If I went over to that computer for two hours, everyone would know I was just following some game tracker online.
BUT, we could listen to the radio in the office, so that was my choice. I would ask my boss (my boss of two months) if I could borrow his radio and I would listen to that radio at a reasonable volume for two hours that afternoon.
It's kind of fun to have a story for my grandkids where Grandpa Robert listened to an important basketball game in the late 1990's on the radio. It's one of only two Illini tournament games in the last 35 years I couldn't watch on TV, the other one being Georgetown in 1994. That game was late on a Friday night, and I was on my way to my fraternity formal, so I listened on the radio, but we lost the radio signal before the game was over so I had to call one of those 1-900 numbers where you could call in and hear the scores of games. Now THAT'S a story for my grandkids.
The game was fairly easy to listen to. We maintained a decent lead nearly the whole game so I didn't need to pace. Kiwane hit, like, a gazillion free throws, Chris Gandy couldn't miss, and Illinois won going away 90-77.
And thanks to this thing called the Internet (no, cell phones didn't have this information yet - I wouldn't even get my first cell phone for another nine months), I found out that #3 Georgia was knocked out by #14 Tennessee-Chattanooga. All we needed to do was knock off the #14 seed and we were on our way to the Sweet 16.
Not sure how that Chattagnooga game turned out. Can't remember.