You Did This

Dec 7, 2022

I got on the elevator down by the media entrance and this family wearing Illini gear were talking to this British couple. Their conversation was already well underway by the time I got on the elevator, so I only caught the tail end of this sentence, but the family was asking something like "did anyone in your family go to Illinois?" and the British couple said "no, we just love basketball" (I couldn't tell if they said Illini basketball or college basketball. And then they talked about how they flew all the way here just to watch this game.

The conversation turned to where they were from in England (up by Newcastle hi Josh) and then DING the doors open and I get out. I was processing all of this in my head - "maybe they said they became Illini fans watching college basketball from over there?" - and so I tried to get back on and ask them some questions. The elevator attendant told me "sorry, media has to get off here and can't go up any further." The doors closed and, despite my efforts to try to locate the British couple in Madison Square Garden at the half, I never found them so I could ask them that question.

But it sent my brain (once again) thinking about Carmen's statement: We Travel. Everyone talked about our crowds in Vegas. Once fans were allowed back at the 2021 Big Ten Tournament, Lucas Oil Stadium was 90% Illini and maybe 10% Iowa or Ohio State. And we showed it again tonight in Madison Square Garden. In fact, let me make a bold statement:

If Illini fans traveled like Iowa fans travel, we would have lost this game.

I stuck around until halftime of the Iowa-Duke game. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Illinois fans during the Illinois-Texas game outnumbered Iowa fans at the Duke-Iowa game 10 to 1. Walk the concourses, look at the shirts - hell, just listen when a basket is scored; Illini basketball fans out-travel Iowa basketball fans 10 to 1.

And that made a MASSIVE difference tonight. We were down ten with 8:30 to play, down six with 3:00 to play, and down five with one minute to play... and we forced overtime. The crowd energy felt like one of the recent Braggin' Rights games where Illinois would out-draw Missouri 5:1. Home court advantage comes from two things: shooting background and noise, and the Travelin' Illini provided the noise.

I mean, just watch this clip from the Big Ten Network's Alex Roux.

Hmmm... the tweet won't embed. Let me go capture the video and embed it here.

That's in overtime after Terrence Shannon's and-one, so yes, that's one of the loudest moments of the game. But look up at that upper deck and all that Illini orange. Look across the arena. Illini fans, once again, showed out in huge numbers and turned a neutral site into a semi-home site. Right when the team needed energy to make that comeback, they fed off that crowd.

(I should note that Duke had a lot of fans there as well. But that's kinda not the same thing. I'm assuming the majority of the Duke fans are from New York City and have "been a fan forever" because "their brother in law went there for law school" and "their step-dad was a fan so they became a fan." No, you picked Duke because they won a lot and you wanted to cheer for a team that wins. It's fine. Just don't pretend you ever invested in anything.)

Back on track: I really think that you did this. The thousands of Illini fans in attendance were the difference. This game required a comeback from down 10 with eight minutes to go, and as soon as the comeback began, the crowd gave 100% comeback energy. Everyone saw it play out. Texas was tentative, Illinois cut it to 7, then 5, then 3, and the crowd was going crazy. A Texas comeback wouldn't have sounded like that. An Iowa comeback wouldn't have sounded like that. This was simply our traveling fanbase providing just enough energy to push the team to overtime while Texas wilted in all the noise.

And then Terrence Shannon Jr. said "I've got it from here". The overtime box score:

Down goes #2.

You might think I'm trying to be cute, but I'm being serious here. You did this. The energy in those final eight minutes of regulation felt like an Illini home game. Texas took the lead with 16:27 left in regulation and they held it all the way until the two Jayden Epps free throws with eight seconds left. Without that crowd energy - without the home game feel of the final eight minutes - I don't think we climb all the way back to tie the game. I think Texas would have played a little better and Illinois would have played a little worse and Texas would have won in regulation.

But this was Champaign East, so we won. Illini fans traveled from all over and provided the necessary comeback atmosphere.

Including maybe London?

+ We'll get to Jayden Epps in a bit, but first, Sencire Harris, man. What an incredible spark plug off the bench.

This is the #2 team in the country and there he was jumping over everyone for two incredible blocks. Care to guess who led the team in plus-minus? No, not Epps. Not Mayer either. Here's the full list:

Harris +13
Epps +11
Melendez +10
Hawkins +9
Mayer +8
Clark -2
Dainja -3
Shannon -5
Rodgers -6

Harris was +13 in only 18 minutes. Really, really impressive for a freshman.

+ SPEAKING OF IMPRESSIVE FRESHMEN, who else thought about Kiwane Garris when Jayden Epps was standing on the line? December of your freshman year and you're standing at the line with the world watching. Except this time, Norm Stewart wasn't past half-court screaming "miss it, miss it" at a freshman.

It wasn't just the two free throws, though. Perhaps the most impressive moment of the night was the smackdown of Texas' comeback attempt in overtime. After that and-one shown above, we had a 77-70 lead with 2:16 to go and it felt like the game was over. But then Brock Cunningham hit a three, Terrence Shannon had his shot blocked, and then Coleman Hawkins fouled Marcus Carr while he was shooting a three. So that 77-70 lead was suddenly 77-76 only 45 seconds later.

What do we do? We go to the true freshman Epps who got to the rim, made the layup, and pushed the lead back to three. Then RJ blocked a Texas shot, they got the rebound and missed a three, and RJ was fouled grabbing that rebound. Two made free throws and now it's back to a five point game with 45 seconds left.

So if you're scoring at home...

2:02 - Texas hits a three to cut it to 77-73
1:28 - Texas hits three three throws to cut it to 77-76
1:06 - Epps scores to push it back to 79-76
0:45 - RJ is fouled after grabbing a rebound, hits both, and it's 81-76

Up 7, up 4, then up 1 but we right the ship and go up 3 and then 5. Comeback attempt thwarted, Illini win.

+ I haven't even mentioned Matthew Mayer yet. 21 points on 8-10 shooting, 5-5 from three. There was all this talk from the coaches of "the threes will start falling soon for him", and tonight was the night. We got to see what the coaches envisioned when they brought him in. Length to be a pest on defense and length to shoot over dudes beyond the arc.

I mean, this was some crazy Texas synergy, right? A transfer from Texas Tech and a transfer from Baylor take down the Longhorns (coached by Chris Beard, the transfer portal king). We go into their state, find two guys to immediately plug and play, and then travel all the way to Madison Square Garden to beat them. Mayer pushes us to a halftime lead, Shannon takes over in overtime, and we beat #2.

+ I'll close with this. And I'm not sure I'll say this right but I have to try.

I wasn't as in awe of Madison Square Garden as I thought I'd be. That's not in any way "meh - unimpressive". I'm not going for "I don't think {actress} is all that attractive" here. Walking down 8th Avenue towards MSG, it's every bit as WOW as you would expect.

But inside, when the game was going on, I lost track of where I was. I could still see the famous ceiling, but I kinda got lost in the crowd and the game. The "wow, it's really cool I got to do that" at this moment is 94% "got to see Illinois beat #2" and 6% "got to see a game at Madison Square Garden."

Like, the crazy-impressive Illinois crowd made even MSG fade into the background. I got lost in the comeback like I was at a home game. The thought of the Illini playing a home game at MSG is preposterous, of course, but during that overtime, I felt like I was at the State Farm Center. You could just feel the "they're actually going to do this" in the air. I totally forgot about MSG.

So thanks, Illini fans. You did this. And I got to watch.


jpbrown on December 7, 2022 @ 03:27 AM

Yes. I’m trying not to let recency bias rule the day, but I think that was the most fun sporting event I’ve ever attended live. That was incredible. Still can’t sleep and I got home from MSG after sticking out the entirety of Duke-Iowa at 1:15. I-L-L!!!

orangejulius on December 7, 2022 @ 07:20 AM

The basketball skill that Epps has shown this early in his career is nothing short of incredible. I can't think of a player we have had who compares to him.

San Joaquin on December 7, 2022 @ 09:54 AM

I underestimated Epps before he arrived. There are lots of shorter bucket getters in high school, and a lot of them hit a pretty low ceiling. Not Epps. He's a killer.

orangejulius on December 8, 2022 @ 10:38 AM

I loved Trent, but he is already better than Trent on offense. Maybe not his handle quite yet, but his passing, his shooting, finishing in the paint, and his feel for the game offensively are all superior to Frazier.

Altgeld88 on December 7, 2022 @ 07:51 AM

I'm happy for the team and fans that the fans are travelling and supporting the team so vociferously.


I was at MSG in Jan 2019 for the game v. #13 Maryland. Not many Illini fans showed up. There was a section extending up from behind the bench but I'd say Maryland fans outnumbered us at least 10:1. Maybe more. Only the lower bowl was populated.

This was, of course, BU's second season. Ayo was a frosh. Maryland had Bruno Fernando and Anthony Cowan, among others. Adonis de la Rosa got in Bruno's head, Ayo and Tevian stepped up, and we pulled a huge upset. A week or so later was the MSU upset at home and Dakich's "This won't end well for Illinois..."

There's no question that we travel well when we're doing well, and that we likely travel better than other schools' fans do. But let's acknowledge that our recent success and the buzz around the teams and culture that BU has assembled play a huge role.

Watched the game from a bar in Bethesda, MD with an Illini brother last evening. Couldn't have been prouder of our guys for their determination. And, man, are they fun to watch. I feel like I'm back in the '80s watching our teams.

IllinifaninGopherland on December 7, 2022 @ 08:23 AM

It was good to see Epps never hesitate to take that big three at the end of regulation after he missed one in a similar situation against the Terps.

IlliniJoe81 on December 7, 2022 @ 09:02 AM

My friend got us amazing seats and was the guy shooting layups in the shooting contest at the under-4 timeout in the first half. (I think he should have won and got robbed. So my friend got screwed by the refs on the MSG court during an Illini game. How perfect.) I got to go on the floor with him to shoot video. So I got to be on the floor at Madison Square Garden during an Illinois game where we come back to beat the #2 team in OT. What a way to break an 11 game, 9.5 year in-person losing streak.

Robert, thank you for writing this article. It really hits home. I can see my brother and his orange wig in the banner photo and the Alex Roux video.

Man, that feeling was amazing. Now I understand your emotions with football this year.

jpbrown on December 7, 2022 @ 10:39 AM

We were the Illini fans that won the Corona cooler at the second TV timeout in the first half! ??

IlliniJoe81 on December 7, 2022 @ 02:02 PM

Sweet! Good job with the puzzle. I thought it would be hilarious to take that home to another state.

ChampaignSipper on December 7, 2022 @ 08:19 PM

And I was sitting right behind you!

IlliniJoe81 on December 8, 2022 @ 03:14 PM


The Olaf Rules on December 7, 2022 @ 09:20 AM

I’m already looking forward to turning Pauley Pavilion orange for the first league game there in 2024. ??

ATOillini on December 7, 2022 @ 09:42 AM

The jerseys last night were most appropriate. They truly were the Fighting Illini.

Didn’t give up. Kept getting after it even when we seemed to struggle with virtually every aspect when we had the ball. Took quite a few punches and didn’t fold. Gritty team effort.

(FYI….The Harris block turning into the perfectly executed break by Epps/RJ was basketball at a very high level.)

OskeeT18 on December 7, 2022 @ 09:50 AM

Kiwane Garris Jr. is in the class of 2025 and he plays in Georgia, FYI. (just discovered this while looking for the free throw video).

Boneyard Surfer on December 7, 2022 @ 10:22 AM

Am I the only one who thinks that Jay Bilas has an anti-Illini bias when he calls games?

Biggie on December 7, 2022 @ 11:05 AM

Even though he went to Duke, I've been partial to Bilas compared to other commentators ever since he shouted "Illinois is showing the heart of a champion!" in the 2005 Arizona game.

CalifIllini on December 7, 2022 @ 11:34 AM

I disagree. Among other things, he observed that this Illinois team has a tremendous upside. I couldn't have said it better myself.

thegoah on December 7, 2022 @ 01:28 PM

I don't think he has an anti-Illinois bias in general, but last night I was really irritated at him when he never questioned any of the fouls that went against us in the first half, but pointed out 12 different times when he thought Texas was fouled with a no call. He was even doing this in the first half when TX had drawn 2 fouls for every one of ours. The 2nd half the fouls favored us, which I suppose is why they had to make up for it by calling a phantom goaltend and another phantom out of bounds on TSJ.

Thaillini22 on December 7, 2022 @ 05:43 PM

"Brumby diggin' it in Champaign!"

AGig21 on December 7, 2022 @ 10:29 AM

I think your last paragraph is spot on. Matt mentioned the same thing in his postgame interview. The crowd helped our boys forget about where they were and who they were playing. It was another battle. Another game no matter where or who they were playing.

LosAngellini on December 7, 2022 @ 12:48 PM

You want to talk about crowd energy, the UCLA game was simply unreal. I've been to 200+ games at Assembly Farm Center and many tourney, or neutral games. That night in Vegas still ranks as a top 5 all-time bananas Illini crowd. The crowd willed the Illini to comeback against a team whose campus is only 270 miles away. Glad we also travel on East Coast.

I don't think Bilas has a bias. In fact I think he's one of the smartest analysts. He was just pointing out that for much of the game, Illinois' offense was totally disjointed hero ball and we had tons of defensive lapses. Not bias, but reality. Thank heavens for Epps and Harris. They changed the game.

NJ Illini on December 7, 2022 @ 03:27 PM

I agree Bilas has a bias unless he's calling a Duke game- but that's the overall ESPN Duke bias that's been instilled by DV since the 80s- they really tried to make Duke "America's Team". But i will say i hate it when Bilas says something like "i dont know why you foul a shooter on the 3-point line" as if that was the intention.

Joe Edge on December 7, 2022 @ 03:31 PM

Jay definitely has (or maybe HAD) a Duke / Coach K. bias... undeniable and unequivocal. Since Coach K retired, he's been trying to even that out... but shades of it still exist.

andyziehr1 on December 9, 2022 @ 09:00 AM

Agree. I was there also and to come back from 15 down in the second half…it was a party.

SCOTTBREN@HOTMAIL.COM on January 2, 2023 @ 11:12 AM

Robert, I don't know if you will see this. (Posting so late) This has nothing to do with the Texas game, but is inspired by your title. I am 51 years old and have been an Illini fan since I can remember. I am not an alumnus but other than a couple of collegiate years, I have lived my entire life in central Illinois. When I married and had three children, I would take my family to 1 or 2 football games, 2 or 3 basketball games, and even volleyball season tickets one year. But then my children started playing sports. With football, hockey, volleyball, and basketball all being fall/winter sports, this became more difficult. The games dropped to 1 and 1. Then when the boys got in high school and my daughter started playing volleyball (including travel ball) this dropped to 0 and 0. It has been eight years since we went to any games. The teams weren't very good. We were bouncing through coaches. It was hard to stay invested. But I did. YOU DID THIS. Your writings are what kept me invested. When the teams would perform horribly, your writings kept me interested, kept me entertained, kept giving me hope. My wife (who is not an Illini fan) would have to hear me repeatedly go on about an interesting perspective you would have on a game or event. This year my daughter completed her senior season of volleyball. We went to our first football game and have made 2 basketball games. Over the years, when the programs weren't giving me much of a reason to follow them, I could have moved on to so many other things, but I didn't. You Did This!

on July 3, 2023 @ 03:59 PM


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