UI puts fight back in Illini

UI puts fight back in Illini

   CHAMPAIGN  For all those folks who forked over good money for an exhibition ticket, Monday night was for you.

   "I think we said, ''Hey, that''s not the Fighting Illini,'' " Illinois senior Brian Johnson said, with an emphasis on the fighting part. "You haven''t seen us yet."

   Five days after firing up its second airball of the exhibition season, Illinois tipped off the real deal with a closer-than-it-looks 69-59 victory over Bradley''s Matt Moran-less Braves.

   Now that''s more like it.

   "This just goes to show, you can''t tell anything from the exhibition season," Illinois assistant Robert McCullum said.

   You could tell that Illinois had plenty of work to do. And not a lot of time to do it.

   "You''d like to see this right from the start, but the progress they''ve made in the last five days really speaks well to the leadership of the senior group," Illinois coach Lon Kruger said.

   You could tell that Illinois wasn''t going to get invited to any postseason tournaments on its good looks.

   "Our guys are proud of the way they can play the game, but they also know that we''ve got to do the little things," Kruger said.

   Johnson took care of those, taking nearly as many dives and charges as he scored points (career-high 15). He''s got the bruised rump to show for it.

   "Johnson''s a very bright player," Bradley coach Jim Molinari said.

   The Illini forced 16 turnovers, swatted away six shots and hit the deck three times big Brave Adebayo Akinkunle came inside. Got three charges out of it, too.

   It''s the new them.

   More floorburn than flash.

   "Making some noise, getting to the floor, blocking shots, diving out of bounds, taking charges," Johnson said.

   Winning by a couple.

   "I think our guys realize that it''s not a negative to want to play that way or to have to play that way," Kruger said. "And I think we''ve got to play that way to have a chance to compete in the Big Ten Conference."

   They''ve got 12 more nonconference games before they get there.

   And 12 more opportunities to work on that perimeter defense, which the Australian National Team and NBC Thunder seemed to enjoy so much.

   It wasn''t a problem early. In a switch from the exhibition season, the Illini started strong, scoring 14 straight and jumping out to an 18-9 lead.

   "I don''t know how long we were on nine," Molinari said.

   Six minutes, three seconds.

   "I almost looked at my mom and asked her for a play," Molinari said.

   If she knew her hoops, Ma would have told him to get it to Rob Dye.

   A stunned Assembly Hall crowd of 13,304 (announced) watched the sophomore point guard beat his career high by six and make a game of the schools'' first meeting in 24 years.

   Dye canned 5 of 9 three-pointers, scored a game-high 23 points and kept the Braves in it in the second half all by his lonesome.

   "Dye stepped up when Adebayo didn''t have anything," UI guard Kevin Turner said.

   In foul trouble all night, Akinkunle saved seven of his 10 points for the second half. His last contribution, a layup with 3:45 to go, pulled the Braves within 57-54.

   That''s as close as they''d come, Turner and Jarrod Gee scoring back-to-back baskets for the Illini, winners of six straight openers. Turner had 17 points, Jerry Hester had 14, Gee 12.

   "I''m really proud of the way our guys hung in there, especially down the stretch," Kruger said. "Kind of gutting through some fatigue and making some big-time plays."