By Tony Hooker
To quote that noted early 21st century philosopher Britney Spears, “Oops I did it again.”
I let the Illinois Men’s basketball team play with my heart. You would think that I would know better, but I don’t.
You see, I’ve been hooked on the Illini since December 3, 1974, when Donnie B took my brother and I to see the Illini take on Valparaiso. I had been to a couple of Illinois football games before then, but that was my very first hoops game. (truthfully, I had to google the exact date, but I knew the month and year) The entire experience, from the walk up to the giant spaceship on the prairie, to the smell of the fresh popcorn, to the sounds of the band, just overloaded my ten-year-old senses, and I’ve been fanatical about the Orange and Blue ever since. For those of you counting at home, that’s 46 years. Nearly a half century. Some great teams, some poor teams, and a bunch of mediocre teams.
I truly wish that this was the first time that being an Illini fan was such a punch to the gut, or lower. Unfortunately, it’s not. I can spout out the years when Illinois lost to a lower seed like I can spout out my kids’ birthdays. Maybe even better.
There was 1981, when number four seed Illinois was taking on the superb Rolando Blackman and eight seed Kansas State University. In the final minutes of an incredibly close game, someone from the Bleachers hits Illinois guard Doug Altenberger with a piece of ice, distracting him just enough to lose the ball. Final score KSU 57-UIUC 52.
1983. Number ten Utah 52- Number seven UIUC 49. I honestly remember nothing about this game. Checked the box score and it looks like our two best scorers, Derek Harper and Efrem Winters, combined to shoot 10-27 from the field, and we went 5-12 from the foul line as a team, a theme that will return to haunt us in a later year.
1984. Lost to Kentucky AT Kentucky in an elite eight game, one of the last times a team hosted NCAA tournament games, when the officials swallowed their whistles on an obvious Dickie Beals travel, instead choosing to call a foul on Bruce Douglas, who clearly had both hands on the ball. Final score UK 54-UIUC 51.
1987. Number three seed Illinois loses to number 14 seed Austin Peay, a loss so shocking that Dickie V had to stand on his head. Darryl Bedford, who weighed in at a robust 275 pounds, hit five three pointers, and Ken Norman’s last second shot drew iron. Final Score AP 68-UIUC 67.
1988. Number three seed Illinois loses to number 6 seed Villanova. The Illini took a ten-point lead into the final minutes of the game, only to miss the front end of five consecutive one and one opportunities at the free throw line. Two years later, and personal fouls starting at the tenth one would result in two shots rather than one and one. Too late for the beloved. Final Score: ‘Nova 66-UIUC 63.
1989. After beating Michigan twice during the regular season, the Illini fall to the wolverines in the final four. Illinois’ Kenny Battle suffered a knee injury when he slipped on a wet floor, caused by a leaky roof at the Minneapolis Metrodome the week before, and Lowell Hamilton sprained an ankle so severely that the training staff worked on it 24 hours per day leading up to the game. In as closely fought a game as you’ll ever see, Michigan’s Sean Higgins used a subtle push off of Illinois’ Nick Anderson to grab a rebound and make a game winning shot. Final score: UM 83-UIUC 81.
1990. Number five Illinois loses to number 12 Dayton. Final Score UD 88-UIUC 86
1997. Number five Illinois loses to number 14 Chattanooga in the second round. Illinois went nearly ten minutes without a field goal in the second half. Final score: Chat 75-UIUC 63
2001 Number one Illinois loses to number two Arizona in Elite eight. After AZ coach Lute Olson publicly complains about Illinois’ physical play, the Illini are whistled for 36 fouls, leading to an incredible 56 fts for the Wildcats, in a game where six Illini players foul out and two others are called for four fouls. To make matters even harder to swallow, Illinois fans are subjected to Bill Walton, whose son plays for UA, constantly whining during the broadcast. Final Score: AZ 87-UIUC 81. The worst loss ever, until….
2005. Number one Illinois loses to number one seed North Carolina. A game that will always be remembered by Illini fans as the “bull in a china shop” game, for the way UNC center Sean May was allowed to rampage in the lane with impunity while the slightest hand check resulted in a foul on Illinois big man James Augustine, our best rebounder. The Illini shot a paltry six free throw attempts the entire game, while May plowed his way to a game high 26 points, including six made free throws. Final score: UNC 75-UIUC 70. It was later discovered that most of that team had been enrolled in sham classes that would cause the NCAA to sniff around the Tarheel program for years. That was my hardest loss ever….until last Sunday. It’s still hard for me to wrap my brain around the fact that my team, who was playing so well, could be totally outclassed in a second-round contest. I’ll get over it, I’m just not sure when.
Can’t you see I’m a fool in so many ways
But to lose all my senses
That is just so typically me.
Indeed, Britney. Indeed.