Orange Krush | After long wait, students enjoying late ride

Orange Krush | After long wait, students enjoying late ride

CHAMPAIGN — Peyton McClure and Cole Swearingen both sat in the Orange Krush section behind the Michigan State bench Tuesday night, hassling the Illinois basketball team's opposition — like they do every game.

Their energy has been constant despite a lean year, leading to numerous appearances on the Jumbotron.

Tuesday was no different as the Illini led throughout. They expected an all-too-familiar ending, though, as the Spartans battled back to take the lead late.

"We were like, 'Oh man, there's only five minutes left, and we've seen this so many times, and we played such a great game,'" McClure said. "Another team comes back, and are we going to be able to come back or turn the game around? And we've seen this a lot of times where it hasn't happened, and we lose the game."

Illini Pride veterans like McClure, a junior from Paxton, and Swearingen, a senior from Sidney, can't be blamed for tempering their expectations. Assuming Illinois doesn't make an unbelievable run, this senior class at Illinois would be the first since the Class of 1980 never to experience a bowl team in football or an NCAA tournament team in basketball.

The Illini's recent surge — a perfect 3-0 homestand capped by Saturday's entertaining overtime win against Rutgers — has created a buzz on campus as the season winds down.

The Illini have three games remaining at what's become a lively State Farm Center.

It wasn't a sellout against Michigan State, but it sure sounded like one.

"As a fan and a leader in the Orange Krush, it's been a tough four years trying to get people to continue come to games, and we really feel like that was a huge game for us, kind of like the Penn State game in football (when the Illini led 24-21 early in the second half but lost 63-24)," Krush executive board member Jason Szumski said.

"We feel like if we would have won that (football) game, it would have been a huge turning point. We would have had an easy time getting fans to come to games."

This time, Illinois didn't fold. Freshman Ayo Dosunmu hit two three-pointers to put the Illini up six with under two minutes left, and Szumski had a feeling the court storming would be on. Shortly after the buzzer sounded on a 79-74 win, the floodgates opened.

"It was just an incredible feeling seeing Ayo hit those two threes and then looking at the security and them giving us the head nod and then, 'All right, let's go,'" he said. "It was a moment that I guarantee none of us will ever forget.

"A lot of the people here are the people that have been through thick and thin for them. Whether we're getting blown out by 35 or winning, they're always there. And it was just so nice to get a gratifying, huge win."

When she was in high school, Ashley Cooney's sister told her glowingly about her experience rushing the court when Illinois topped No. 1 Indiana in 2013. During her senior year, she finally had that special experience herself.

"I was looking for that moment, that game," the executive board member said. "When we stormed the court, it was surreal. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

For McClure, who grew up watching Illinois basketball, Tuesday wasn't the first time he was on hand at State Farm Center for a court storming. In 2013, he skipped a freshman basketball practice at Paxton-Buckley-Loda to attend that Illinois win over Indiana.

On Tuesday, he and the rest of the Krush finally experienced the unbridled joy that comes after a huge win.

"To be able to do that six years later as a student, that was unbelievable," he said. "It all culminated in an unbelievable experience."