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In December of 1995, Illinois went into Cameron Indoor and won. It was a massive win. Duke's home non-conference winning streak had remained unbroken for nearly 12 years at that point. Kiwane Garris went off, Jerry Gee went for 13 & 12 against the team he chose the Illini over, and Chris Gandy made everyone in America happy by simply standing in one spot until the floor-slappiest floor-slapper of all time ran directly into him:
That was a big deal, breaking Duke's streak. This is bigger. This was #6 Illinois going to #10 Duke and winning handily.
This game had the feel of Illinois playing Western Carolina in a meaningless December game in the State Farm Center. Illinois jumps out to a 14-2 lead and never looks back, the lead pushes to 19 at one point, they cut it to 10 at one point, but the entire second half is a 12-15 point lead and Illinois coasts to a 83-68 win. One of those games where the crowd is sleepy so you can hear individual fans saying "come on, wake up" after Western Carolina cuts it to 11.
Except this wasn't Western Carolina. This was some school from central Carolina. Duke now has six non-conference home losses since the beginning of the 1984 season, and two of them are to Illinois. We like that.
(Quick pause: my dog is sleeping here next to me and she is having a nightmare. She's whimpering and moving her feet - poor thing is dreaming that she can't catch the mailman or something. No joke - when I first heard her whimper and sigh my initial reaction was "how could ANYONE be in a bad mood right now?".)
(And yes - I woke her up. I always do.)
Look, here's the deal with this game. Here was my experience while watching. I need to be writing about this and not about my dog's nightmares.
I was nervous. I think all of us were nervous. We build this 14-2 lead before we can blink and then it's just Nervesville. Yes, we have a double digit lead, but this is Duke at Duke and we're Illinois. We could all sense the "three 3's in the span of 48 seconds and Duke has cut the 11 point lead to only 2" coming.
So I paced the entire second half. We have this big long sectional, and so I simply paced behind it from one end of the room to the other. Friends are texting their fears, I flip through Twitter and the Slack channel and everyone seems to be the same: "this is great, but we all can sense what happens next".
Not only did it not happen, it didn't come anywhere close to happening. Duke never even cut it to single digits. We played a game at Duke and they never even cut it to a three-possession game in the second half. This was a start-to-finish whoopin'.
After the game - and maybe you felt this too - I think I felt a little silly? Like, why was I so nervous? When Ayo hit that final shot - Morgan Park over Whitney Young with just the smoothest pull-up jumper which didn't hit even the tiniest piece of Duke's extra-noisy rims - it made me face my fears. As in, why would I be so worried about a 13 point lead when we have an All American who can land the plane?
I settled here: we're all broken. The last 15 years did this to us. We used to be confident that a 13-point lead with six minutes left was completely safe, but that all went away for a while. We started to worry about everything because nothing ever felt easy. And when it doesn't feel easy, I feel uneasy. And so I pace and worry and panic. Collapse is just around the corner, I can taste it.
A game like this, though - if you step back and look at it, it was never once in doubt, from start to finish - a game like this can move me from broken to... unbroken? A game where we're getting layups, dunks, and open threes while they're taking contested midrange jumper after contested midrange jumper - that's the kind of game that can unbreak a man. This wasn't a "shots were falling" win (although they were). This was a "scoring was really easy for Illinois and very difficult for Duke" win. This was my team dominating a top-10 opponent.
Let the healing begin.
+ Can we all just recognize Da'Monte Williams for a moment?
Limited to 20 minutes because of foul trouble (mostly because he was a glove tonight and that made the refs uncomfortable), Da'Monte goes 4-4 from the floor including 2-2 from three. That makes him 9 for 13 on three pointers this season. He also had three huge rebounds, two huge steals, and a massive block that doesn't even count as a block because he blocked an alley-oop attempt in what I believe to be the play of the game. Oh, and he was asked to guard a guy seven inches taller than him - a guy who didn't really start scoring until Da'Monte was out with foul trouble.
Oh, and, uh... the person doing all of this is THE SON OF FRANK WILLIAMS. This just feels like a legendary glue guy season in the making.
+ The balanced scoring tonight was something else.
Ayo hit some free throws, a jumper, and a layup in the last two minutes to push out to 18 points from 12. And Trent hit those two free throws late. Before those 8 garbage time points (we had garbage time points at Duke), here was the scoring for the main seven guys in the Illini rotation:
13 - 12 - 12 - 11 - 10 - 9 - 8
The final totals after the garbage time points:
18 - 13 - 12 - 11 - 10 - 10 - 9
There's a lot to discuss around that, of course. You want a rotation of 8-9 guys by the time the tournament rolls around, so Grandison and Hawkins will need to step up. But for now, this seven-man team seems to be clearly defined. The five main returnees (Ayo, Trent, Da'Monte, Giorgi, and Kofi) plus the two freshmen (Belo and Ace). We knew this going in, but after a game like this, we REALLY know this. That's what we offer. With no more Chicago States or North Carolina A&T's on the schedule, I doubt we'll see much of any of the other players on the roster. BBV and Hutcherson are injured, and it doesn't look like we'll see much Hamlin or Lieb, so this is the team. Those seven plus whatever Hawkins and Grandison can provide.
If the Magnificent Seven can provide scoring as balanced as that, with scoring bursts possible from all seven (yes, even Da'Monte), watch out.
+ I wanted to make sure everyone saw this tweet from Tyler:
Wrote this in my gamer after Chicago State: “Andre Curbelo is going to play 1000 miles per hour. He's also going to commit a million turnovers, and I'm here for every one of them.” Yup. #Illini— Tyler Cottingham (@TylerCott) December 9, 2020
When I originally read those words I wasn't exactly sure what he meant. But now I think I do. I've understood "no no no no YES" before when it comes to long-range shooting. Giorgi taking threes last season was a good example.
I'm not sure I've ever understood it with breaking presses and driving the lane, but after tonight, I do. He was absolutely 1,000 miles per hour tonight, and it led to some D- plays (bad turnovers) and it led to some A+ plays (incredible, how-did-he-get-through-there moves in the lane). As someone who once had a high school semester of A - A - A - C - D, I am, as Tyler said, HERE FOR IT.
+ I also wanted to make sure people heard my hot mess of a From The Sun Room after the game. It's in the We Love No Other Feed, but you can also go listen to it here. If you want the Full Robert Experience, that's me in raw, organic form after a win like this.
+ I also wanted to make sure people considered subscribing to IlliniBoard. There might be a few basketball words you'll want to read in the next four months. And I'm planning to travel to as many road games as possible, so I appreciate your support as I chronicle this "how far can they go?" team.
+ I should probably go to bed, so one closing thought.
There have been games where we won because we shot lights out (at Purdue last year, for example). There have been games we've won because one player had a massive game (Giorgi against Rutgers two years ago, for example).
But I'm not sure I recall a game where we looked so efficient. I realize I stumbled onto a NERDstat word there, so I apologize if my "efficient" doesn't mean what your "efficient" means. I'm just saying that this was not a "the shots were falling" game, at least not to me. This was "everything was working so well that the scoring seemed easy". Duke would make one small rotation mistake and BANG Trent hits an open three. You'd see Kofi or Giorgi sealing a guy in the lane and say "yep, we're getting the easiest of easy layups right here". Everything was working, on both ends.
So when you see that Illinois hit 7 of 11 threes, yeah, that's a percentage higher than what you're going to hit even when getting a bunch of open looks. But I almost look at that number as "it would have been 7 for 22, but we didn't force the other 11 threes" (I can explain that, I swear, but it's too late to try right now). We simply took 11 great shots. OK, 10 great threes and Curbelo's heat check.
Really, the only thing to change was the turnovers. 18 turnovers is way too many. We can't make a deep tournament run if we have an 18 turnover game.
But all that did was prevent us from winning by 27 tonight. Everything else was total and complete domination. Of the #10 team in the country. At their place. The hardest place to win in America the last 30 years.
Time for bed. I'm gonna sleep so well. Hopefully I catch the mailman.