'It was really surreal to be in that atmosphere'

'It was really surreal to be in that atmosphere'

CHAMPAIGN — State Farm Center was empty the day before the National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament, save for the Illinois men's and women's teams.

But Illinois coaches Matt Buchi and Stephanie Wheeler wanted their players to experience it as if it were full.

So they had the staff at the arena dim the lights and turn on the spotlight to let their young teams see exactly what the center court introductions would feel like.

"We made sure to practice it so we wouldn't be overwhelmed by the moment," Wheeler said. "It's interesting because (some of the Illini athletes) play on the international level, but I think we're doing some things differently here, like the introductions and all of the hype before games."

Normally, at Illinois home games, fans sit on the temporary bleachers at the Activities and Recreation Center on campus. But as the No. 6 Illini men got set Thursday to play a No. 3 UT-Arlington team they'd beaten earlier in the year, a few hundred fans scattered across the lower bowl of the 15,500-seat State Farm Center..

The traveling fans and the home fans chanted back and forth, with the call and response of "UT-A" competing with "ILL-INI."

"I know they wanted revenge, so both of the fans went at each other, and our bench was trying to be louder," Gabe DenBraber said. "It was really surreal to be in that atmosphere. ... It's fun just to see the wheelchair community or the wheelchair basketball community take center stage."

In that intense environment, the teams went back and forth for the first 30 minutes of the game, and Illinois trailed 44-42 midway through the second half. The Illini wound up losing, 67-48.

With two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior in the starting lineup, though, the Illini took solace in the fact that they'd all return next year, and most of the team will be back for multiple seasons.

"It really fell apart for us," sophomore Kyle Jankowski said, "but we're going to come out the next two games better than ever and we're going to come out next year and go for a national championship."

The Illini women, also a youthful team, lost to Alabama, 55-32. The experience of playing on the big stage, though, was the overarching positive of the day.

"The atmosphere that we've been able to create with the fans that we brought in," Wheeler said, "and just what the gym feels like, orange and blue with the 'I' in the middle, it's just a pretty unique experience."

The Illini men will play in the consolation bracket at noon today, while the women will play at 10 a.m. Saturday for third place.

Buchi wants to make sure his men's team soaks up this week's experience, both the positive and the negative sides.

"I want it to be a wonderful blessing for them in the future," Buchi said. "I want them to say, 'Man, playing in the State Farm Center was such an incredible experience — one because it was so much fun, but also it was one of the biggest learning experiences I've ever had.'

"If they can experience that in their freshman years or their sophomore years, that will really help a lot."