Memory Lane: Nate Mast's first start

Memory Lane: Nate Mast's first start

EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE

This week: Nate Mast, who is coming to town for a book signing (4-6 p.m . Friday at Meathead's Champaign), couldn't have picked a tougher opponent to make his starting debut at Illinois.

Headline: Mast makes point in first Illini start

Date: Jan. 17, 1999

By JIM ROSSOW

CHAMPAIGN – He said it was just an ordinary cut, the usual $12 job at Gene's Barber Shop on Mattis Avenue.

"Ten for cut, two for the tip," Nate Mast said.

But his teammates weren't buying it. A new 'do leading into his first college start at a cramped Assembly Hall and before a television audience was too much of a coincidence.

"They were all like, 'You just had to go out and get a haircut,' " Mast said. "They didn't believe me."

Nothing new for Mast, who has faced doubters since trying out for the Illinois basketball team last season. Too short. Too slow.

Too bad.

The former News-Gazette All-Area pick from Champaign Central has won the point guard spot until Lon Kruger says otherwise.

"We'll go with Nate at the point," Kruger said after Saturday's 51-49 loss to No. 14 Michigan State. "He's established that, and he's given us direction. We have confidence in Nate."

Mast wasn't told he'd make his first start until the Illini met before the game. But he figured he'd get the call after practicing with the first team in the days after Sergio McClain sprained an ankle at Purdue.

Jitters weren't a problem. Until afterward, when the sophomore attended his first-ever news conference.

Someone asked Mast how nervous he was on the court. "Tell you what," he told a crowd of reporters, "I'm more nervous now."

Mast handled the interview process like he did his first start: few mistakes.

Hounded by reigning Big Ten MVP Mateen Cleaves much of the time, Mast made three turnovers in a career-high 34 minutes.

He led the Illini with five assists, including two during the UI's first second-half rally. He scored five points on 2-of-4 shooting. He even grabbed a couple rebounds.

"He's going to be good," Cleaves said. "He's got a good knowledge of the game. He picks and chooses his time. He played a real smart game.

"He didn't try to do too much and did a good job running the team."

Two years ago Mast may have asked Cleaves for an autograph. Now he gets a compliment.

"It just adds to the amount of great feelings I've had tonight," Mast said. "Coming out here and starting in front of the crowd ... "

Which included a section of family and friends, who heard rumors he would start and rushed to the ticket office.

Mast is the first Central product to start for the Illini since Rod Fletcher in 1952. And he'll be in the lineup at Wisconsin.

"I'm proud of Nate. He gave us great direction," Kruger said. "He was active in the zone, he got the ball to the shooters at the right time, he made a couple shots.

"I expect him to keep doing it."

Kruger's comments excited Mast, who a week ago played all of three minutes against Northwestern. Now he's playing until his legs cramp up, which they did late in Saturday's game.

"Making the team was one step, then practicing," Mast said. "Now that I'm playing more and getting to start, that's a great feeling that he's got confidence in me."

After the game, Mast returned to his dorm room, made a call to his dad, Eric, and hit the sack early.

Pleasant dreams for sure.

"If Serge gets better and comes in and my minutes go down, that's fine," Mast said. "I'll keep coming in and fighting hard."

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