Jan. 5, 2014
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
Illinois 75, Penn State 55
Flyin' Illini Day
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Freshmen Malcolm Hill (8 points) and Jaylon Tate (6 points) were both a perfect 4-of-4 at the free throw line, while freshman Kendrick Nunn added five points, giving the Illini rookies a combined 19 points off the bench, their third-highest output this year.
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"This is one of the most exciting teams that we've ever had in the history of basketball," former Illini Coach Henson said of his team. "They were so explosive. They were America's team. Everybody loved to watch this team, and you can tell by the celebration how much [the fans] appreciate the talent and the type of guys we had. We had unbelievable morale, great character and good students. They had everything that a top ball club needs."
The 1989 Final Four team - including Nick Anderson, Kenny Battle, Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo, Lowell Hamilton, Marcus Liberty, Larry Smith, Ervin Small, P.J. Bowman and Andy Kaufmann - were all in attendance (except for Anderson, who had obligations with the Orlando Magic) as they were honored at halftime of Saturday's game against Penn State, with Coach Groce and Coach Henson wearing matching orange suits.
"When you have an opportunity to get back and catch up and see what your teammates are doing, what their families are doing, what their kids are doing, it's great," former Illini Kenny Battle said. "Exchange memories from the time when we were here on campus. It's just great to be back. This is a great building and a great place."
The Flyin' Illini were known for their up-tempo style and high-flying offense that brought incredible performances and miraculous finishes. During the 1988-89 season, Illinois had a season for the record books, including setting a single-season school record by scoring 3,110 points, a mark that still stands as the UI record today, and registered a 17-0 record at the Assembly Hall (now State Farm Center) for the season. In a loaded Big Ten conference, Illinois ascended to a No. 1 ranking for the second time in school history (first since 1952) after defeating Georgia Tech in double-overtime and went on to claim their season-long goal of reaching the 1989 Final Four at the Kingdome in Seattle. It marked Illinois' fourth all-time Final Four appearance, and first in 37 years.
"Winning, having fun, a lot of slam dunks, a lot of fast breaks, just a lot of excitement," Battle said of his favorite memories as an Illini. "There was a lot of camaraderie between the guys. It was a great team to be a part of with a great coaching staff and a great athletic department."
On Friday night, a formal reception was held at the Memorial Stadium Colonnades Club honoring the Flyin' Illini. The event was also attended by the current team, which is off to a 13-2 start in their quest to match the success of the legendary squad.
"One of the things we told the [current] team last night is that you're playing for something bigger than yourselves, you're playing for all the people that either went to school here, that root for the Illini or that put the jersey on," Bardo said. "We understood that 25 years ago, I hope they understand that today."
"We have great respect for all those guys that have played here," current head coach John Groce said. "We understand that we represent them and a lot of our alums and Illini nation, and that is a tremendous privilege. If anything, it was great for our guys to see how close they are, 25 years later. It's amazing how close they are. It tells you a lot about that team. It's pretty cool."
The Illini faithful cheered every time a Flyin' Illini member exited the arena, and giving gracious waves and smiles as they exited, the former Illini know they are always welcome back home in Champaign.
"I get a chance to come back a lot more than my teammates, but this is really special to be with them, to get acknowledged like we did," Bardo said. "It never gets old for me coming back with the love that the Flyin' Illini has 25 years later, it's pretty awesome."
Toughness and TogethernessIn front of the slew of Illini greats, Illinois and Penn State battled it out on Saturday afternoon at State Farm Center. In an intense game filled with a few turbulent moments, the Fighting Illini pulled away late to post a 20-point victory over the Nittany Lions, 75-55.
We're there for each other, no matter where we are, so we always have each other's backs.
- Jon Ekey
Illinois jumped out to a 9-0 lead and held Penn State scoreless for the opening 6:48 of the game. The Orange & Blue held its opponent to under 30 percent shooting for the first time this season, as Penn State shot a season-low 29.8 percent (17-of-57). The Illini also held the Nittany Lions to their lowest offensive output this season with 55 points, nearly 25 points below their season average.
Four Illini finished in double figures, but the game was more of a physical defensive bout than anything. Freshman Malcolm Hill showed his toughness in the paint and contributed eight points for the Illini, while fending off larger and aggressive Nittany Lion players. Hill and Jaylon Tate (six points) were both perfect 4-of-4 at the free throw line, while freshman Kendrick Nunn added five points, giving the Illini rookies a combined 19 points off the bench.
Graduate student Jon Ekey got his rhythm back to put up 11 points, breaking out of a shooting slump to hit three three-pointers. He also contributed eight rebounds and showed that the little things are just as important as scoring.
"It's just one of those things that if it happens, it happens in the game," Ekey said of his slump. "I've been through that before. I wasn't too worried about it. Coach was on me to just keep shooting the ball, everyone was, so I wasn't too worried about it."
With 8:38 left in the second half, the physical game went up to another level when Penn State's D.J. Newbill and Illini Kendrick Nunn got tangled up and Newbill shoved Nunn in the back of the head. After the officials reviewed the play on video, Newbill was granted a technical foul and ejected with a season-low seven points, marking the first time he failed to reach double figures this year.
Groce was happy with how junior guard Tracy Abrams made sure the team stayed poised after the altercation.
"Tracy's been through a lot of wars and he really controlled that huddle there with his leadership, talking about poise and composure and finishing the game the right way," Groce said of Abrams after Newbill's ejection. "He's grown leaps and bounds as a leader, not only non-verbally, because he's always been a bulldog, but vocally."
Abrams stepped up in the second half, scoring all 12 of his points after the break, and finishing with six rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers.
"Basically just staying together and not letting things like that get into our head," Ekey said of how Illinois rebounded after the altercation. "We're there for each other, no matter where we are, so we always have each other's backs."
Illinois maintained its composure and responded to the unwelcome shoving by taking a few lessons from its Flyin' Illini predecessors, as Nnanna Egwu slammed down two dunks to get the crowd on its feet. After Newbill's ejection, the Illini closed the contest on a 23-12 run to pull away for a comfortable win. The Illini started both the first and second half on a 9-0 run and led wire-to-wire for the fifth time this season.
Reigning Big Ten Player of the Week junior transfer Rayvonte Rice scored a team-high 15 points and now has 72 points over the last three games, scoring 28 vs. UIC and a career-high 29 vs. Indiana. The Big Ten's leading scorer with an 18.7 points per game average, Rice has now scored in double figures in all 15 games as an Illini.