Illini victories too few, far between

   COLUMBUS, Ohio  In sprinter Benita Kelley and half-miler Bobby True, Illinois has two of the premier athletes in the Big Ten.

   That''s comforting only if you regard track and field as an individual showcase in which team scores are irrelevant. Otherwise, there was little solace for the Illini at Sunday''s 98th Big Ten Championships.

   The Illinois men, who never had been out of the first division in Gary Wieneke''s 24 years as head coach, plummeted to eighth, their worst finish since 1967.

   The Illinois women, an uncharacteristic seventh in 1997, climbed to third with 115 points behind Michigan (129 1/2) and Wisconsin (117). Even that was unsatisfying. But coach Gary Winckler didn''t blame an injury to sprinter Aspen Burkett.

   "We basically did it to ourselves," said Winckler, pointing to shortcomings in the 800 meters, long jump, triple jump and shot put. "The meet was so tight coming in, you almost had to have the perfect meet on paper to win the thing."

   Illinois started fast by winning the 400-meter relay, but Burkett wobbled through the final 30 meters. She aggravated an inflamed tendon in her knee and hobbled to fourth in the 100 and seventh in the 200.

   Kelley led a 1-2-4-5 Illini finish in the 100, with 1996 champion Kerry Ann Richards second and freshman Aleisha Latimer fifth.

   It was the first Big Ten outdoor title for Kelley, who finished behind teammates in 1995 and 1996. In 1997, she was second to Michigan State''s Sevatheda Fynes, a NCAA champion and World Championships medalist for the Bahamas.

   "I had to wait and be patient, and it''ll come," Kelley said. "And I guess today was my day."

   She took the 200 in 23.28 after clocking 11.47 in the 100.

   The Illini''s other winner was Stacy Ann Grant, who high jumped 6 feet, 1/2 inch.

   Illinois'' streak of seven successive winners in the 400 hurdles ended when defending champ Yvonne Harrison was beaten by Iowa''s Wynsome Cole.

   On the men''s side, Minnesota won its first outdoor title since 1967, scoring 134 1/2 points to 120 for three-time defending champ Wisconsin. Iowa, which was ninth last year, used football sprinters to score 103 for third place.

   The Illini scored 54 1/2, taking zeros in nine of 19 events and totaling 3 1/2 in eight field events.

   They were lacking even in traditional strongholds. Besides True, Illinois'' only distance points were a sixth by Rob Winfield in Saturday''s steeplechase. Minnesota, which built its team around field events, outscored the Illini 34-15 in the 100, 200 and 400 and beat them in the 400 relay.

   "If we had the answers, it wouldn''t happen," said Wieneke, who pulled Cortney Lamb from the 800 final after Lamb inexplicably was last in the 1,500.

   True easily won the 800 in 1 minute, 48.30 seconds against Michigan''s Kevin Sullivan, whose victory in the 1,500 was his 16th Big Ten title.

   True coasted the last 40 meters, looking over his right shoulder. He said afterward he was saving energy for the 1,600 relay. He was third in the NCAA indoors, and he appeared capable of improving on that in the outdoor NCAAs at Buffalo, N.Y., June 3-6.

   "I wouldn''t be going there unless it were to win," True said.

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