COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—Illinois was bigger, badder and better, muscling past an inferior opponent and into the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Just like a Big Ten team should.
Dee Brown scored 21 points as the fifth-seeded Fighting Illini advanced in the NCAA tournament Friday with a 72-53 victory over 12th-seeded Murray State. They won on the same floor where they claimed their first outright conference title in 52 years this month.
Roger Powell added 11 points and James Augustine 10 for Illinois (25-6), which took control of the Atlanta Regional matchup with a late run in the first half, pulled away and cruised into the second round for the second straight year.
The Illini on Sunday face fourth-seeded Cincinnati, which got a scare Friday from East Tennessee State.
The Racers (28-6) were led by Cuthbert Victor’s 15 points and Chris Shumate’s 13. But the Ohio Valley Conference champions couldn’t handle Illinois’ size or strength inside and dropped to 0-12 against Big Ten schools.
“We just have a little better athlete, a little better size than what they’re used to facing,” said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who could relate to Murray State’s dilemma after spending five years at Southern Illinois. “I think our pressure tired them out as the game went on.”
If there were ever a year Murray State could end its drought against one of college basketball’s power conferences, this was it. But the Racers couldn’t get closer than six points in the second half and shot just 34 percent (17-of-49) from the field while being outrebounded 44-27.
Murray State got just seven rebounds in the second half.
“We didn’t play the way we’ve played all year,” Shumate said. “We didn’t make plays. We didn’t score. We had a lot of shots go in and out.”
Nationwide Arena was a new venue for the Fighting Illini, but not Ohio State’s court, which was shipped from Value City Arena by the host Buckeyes for the first- and second-round games.
On March 7, Illinois was crowned Big Ten champs on the same court—the school’s first exclusive basketball title since 1954.
“When we left Columbus, we said, ‘Hey, we could be back here’,” Weber said. “The kids felt comfortable.”
In a down year for the league, Illinois was the conference’s highest seed as only three Big Ten schools made the 64-team field—the fewest since expansion in 1985.
Now it’s up to Illinois and Wisconsin to uphold the league’s reputation after Michigan State was upset on Thursday night.
“I think that’s a big role,” said Augustine. “We want to represent the Big Ten as well as we can, but we’re kind of in it for ourselves now. We’ve got to be kind of a selfish team.”
With his team leading by eight in the second half, Brown hit a 3-pointer to make it 48-37. Three minutes later, the speedy point guard hit another 3 to put the Fighting Illini up 15.
Murray State tried to chip away, but Illinois challenged every shot, and any thought of an upset disappeared with 6:27 left when Luther Head hit a 3-pointer and Augustine scored on a putback to make it 62-47.
The cushion allowed Illinois to run time off the clock with each possession and savor the final minutes of their fifth straight NCAA first-round win.
“It all went back to paying attention to detail,” Brown said. “We knew that if we’d defend and make them take tough shots, we could get the rebound and get out and run.”
The Racers played without their second-leading scorer, Kelvin Brown, who was suspended indefinitely following his arrest last weekend on drug charges.
Starting point guard Adam Chiles also was arrested, and didn’t start for just the fifth time all season before coming in early in the first half.
Neither team could find its range early on. They combined to miss 10 straight 3-pointers before ending their droughts by making 3s that just beat the 35-second shot clock.
Shumate’s 3-pointer—Murray State’s third in a row—gave the Racers an 18-17 lead. After an Illinois turnover, Chiles tried to dunk over Brown but slammed it off the rim.
The play gave momentum back to the Fighting Illini, who after struggling against Murray State’s 2-3 zone, finally figured it out.
“Once we started making shots, we got our confidence, and that’s all we needed,” Brown said.