UI 75, Penn State 55: Notebook
CHAMPAIGN — For much of the season, John Groce has commended his Illinois team for the level of fight it has shown throughout the course of the first 15 games. On Saturday, it nearly took it to a literal sense.
With 8:38 remaining in the game, Illinois’ Kendrick Nunn converted a driving layup, and on his way back to the defensive end collided with Penn State’s D.J. Newbill. Newbill responded with a shove to the back of Nunn’s head and the two squared off with one another before being separated as players from both teams rushed to the scene.
Newbill was assessed a technical foul and was ejected from the game after officials reviewed the footage.
Both Groce and Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said they had not had a chance to see the play before speaking to the media after the game.
“I had no idea, I didn’t see it. I asked the refs,” Chambers said. “D.J. thought he got bumped, that’s why he did whatever he did. I don’t even know what he did. I’ll watch it on film on the way home. He’s got to keep his composure. We need him out there. We need him on the floor, and obviously with him not on the floor you see how we played.”
When the incident occurred, Illinois led 52-43. After that, the Illini closed the game on a 23-12 run to cruise to the win.
Newbill entered the game second in the Big Ten in scoring (18.8) behind Illinois’ Rayvonte Rice. He finished with seven points in 25 minutes, ending a streak of 29 straight games in double figures.
“I haven’t watched it yet. I don’t know a lot about it at this point,” Groce said after the game. “I did not even see it live. Stuff happens. We’ll move on and get ourselves ready for Wednesday.”
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Looking every bit as in shape as he was 25 years ago, Marcus Liberty entered the court at State Farm Center on Saturday ready to suit up for the Illini again.
“It brings back memories. Coming through that tunnel, I was ready to play again. I was looking forward to getting an alley-oop dunk or Kenny Battle going down the middle with a 360 dunk,” Liberty said after he and the rest of the members of the 1989 Flyin’ Illini team were honored during a halftime ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of that Final Four team. “That was one of the greatest seasons that I can always remember. Even though I made it to the NBA, my most memorable basketball moments were when I played at Illinois as a part of that 1989 Flyin’ Illini team.”
The team was honored at a reception Friday night at Memorial Stadium, and they took part in another event prior to Saturday’s game. For some, it was the first time seeing old teammates in more than a decade.
“We haven’t seen Andy Kaufmann in so long. Rodney Jones and Lowell Hamilton — I haven’t seen him in a long time. It just feels good, man,” Liberty said. “It’s almost like we never lost a beat because we were all friends off the court. When we saw each other, we picked right back up where we left off.”
Liberty, as well as the other members of that team, are excited about the direction of the program under Groce, the second-year Illinois coach.
“I love it. Coach Groce, he reaches out to the former players. He wants us to come back. He wants us to get involved,” Liberty said. “He’s a player’s coach. You can tell how animated he is on the sideline and how much energy he brings to the game. He’s a great coach, and I think he’s the right coach for this program.”
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Another Illinois legend from a different sport took in the game Saturday at State Farm Center. Juice Williams, the former Illinois quarterback whose total yardage record was broken this season by Nathan Scheelhaase, returned to campus to take in the Flyin’ Illini celebration.
Williams’ current girlfriend, Jamillah Bowman, is the younger sister of former Illinois guard P.J. Bowman.
“I’m dating Jamillah and I wanted to come down and see all this and be a part of it,” Williams said. “It’s pretty cool.”
Williams is still playing football as a quarterback with the Chicago Slaughter of the Continental Indoor Football League. He’s also working in Chicago as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company.
In his spare time, Williams keeps tabs on the Illinois football program and hopes to be a more visible presence going forward.
“I think we have the right pieces in terms of the staff and getting the pieces in place. We’ve just got to do it. It’s important for the alumni to get involved, get the recruits in place and motivate these kids to be great, that’s the bottom line,” he said. “I remember being here seeing some of the former guys come back, that encouraged me. Seeing Simeon Rice and Jack Trudeau and all those guys on campus encouraged me to go out and give my best effort.”
During this most recent trip to campus, Williams remains as popular as ever with Illinois fans, signing autographs and posing for pictures frequently Saturday.
“It’s a little different, and I’m honored to be recognized by so many people even five years removed,” he said. “Even current students acknowledge me. It’s a great feeling.”
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None of the current Illinois players were born when the Flyin’ Illini were the toast of college basketball. They’ve seen a lot of highlights, though, and there are plenty of those to be seen.
“I didn’t think the athleticism was that crazy back when those guys were playing,” Illinois guard Tracy Abrams said.
Abrams and all of the current Illini spent time with the members of the 1989 team at a reception Friday night and soaked in whatever they could from a group that spent time as the No. 1 team in the country.
“It’s great to get a chance to get some input from those guys. I definitely take it in,” Abrams said. “Most of the time, when I talk to guys who won, I try to talk about stuff off the court. We spend a lot of time off the court and I feel like, off the court, how close your team is, the closer you are off the court, the better you are on the court. Guys can take criticism and don’t take it personal. It’s just a connection. It’s big.”
Halfway through this season, Abrams feels like his team is making progress in those areas.
“We’ve done a good job of it with nine new guys,” he said. “Just hanging out, as crazy as it sounds. Not hanging out partying, just getting a chance to know each other’s personalities.”
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Led by Malcolm Hill’s eight points and two rebounds, Illinois’ bench played its most productive game of the season in Saturday’s win.
Jaylon Tate added six points and Nunn scored five points and had a steal. And though Maverick Morgan and Austn Colbert didn’t crack the scoring column, Groce praised all their efforts. He saw it coming.
“I thought some of the young guys that came off the bench, collectively, might have been their best game of the year — and, ironically, the last two days were their best two days of practice of the year,” Groce said. “Good lesson for them.”
Hill had not scored in the previous four games after going for a career-high 10 in the win against Dartmouth on Dec. 10.
“He was dynamite the last two days,” Groce said. “I think he decided in the last couple of days, ‘I’ve got to play better. I’m better than this.’ He turned it on and he got rewarded for that today. I thought he was a big part of our success today.”
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A senior in college, Bryce Weiler takes an old-school approach to enjoying college basketball. He listens to games on the radio. That’s because he can’t watch them on television. Weiler was born four months premature and without eyesight.
A native of Olney and a senior at the University of Evansville, Weiler first fell in love with basketball as a youngster listening to Illinois games on the Illini Sports Network with Brian Barnhart and Stephen Bardo on the call. He also listened to Don Fischer’s Indiana broadcasts.
“I love Don, but I always cheer for the other team because I’m not an Indiana fan,” Weiler says.
Weiler reached out to Barnhart and attended Saturday’s game. He sat on press row behind Barnhart and Jerry Hester with headphones listening to their call.
“Brian does such a good job of describing the action for someone who can’t see,” Weiler said. “He taught me the game of basketball through listening to his broadcasts, so without Brian, I wouldn’t be on the journey through college basketball that I am.
“Don Fischer also described basketball well. Both Brian and Don’s pregame and postgame interviews with Coach (Bruce) Weber and Coach (Mike) Davis from Indiana taught me a lot about college basketball.”
Through the years, Weiler has struck up friendships with many college basketball coaches. When talking about them, he always precedes their names with “my friend.”
His friends include Brad Stevens, Rick Pitino, Herb Sendek, Mark Phelps and Steve Prohm. He’s friends with Penn State coach Patrick Chambers, too, and was excited to meet Groce for the first time Saturday.
Weiler carries in his pocket pieces of the net from Butler’s two Final Four runs, souvenirs given to him by Stevens. He’s also got a piece of the net from Louisville’s national championship last season — and the same championship ring the players and coaches received with his name inscribed on it.
“I’m just thankful for those coaches to think of me when they are celebrating their championships and their Final Fours,” Weiler said. “Coach Pitino had Gorgui Dieng cut down a couple pieces and one was for one of Coach Pitino’s grandchildren and another was for me. For them to think of me during such a historic moment means a lot to me.”