Illini keep eyes on long-shot title share

Tribune staff reporter

Warren Carter, Jamar Smith and Chester Frazier came off the bench to keep Illinois in the game in the first half, Dee Brown "took over" in the second half and injury-depleted Michigan State had an energy crisis after playing two nights earlier.

Those were the major factors in the Illini's 75-68 victory Saturday afternoon at the Breslin Center in their regular-season finale.

After winning three straight in an eight-day span, Illinois (25-5, 11-5) still has a slim chance of tying for the Big Ten title after winning it outright the last two seasons.

For that to happen, first-place Ohio State (22-4, 11-4) will have to lose to last-place Purdue (9-17, 3-12) Sunday in Columbus.

Iowa tied the Illini for second place by defeating Wisconsin on Saturday, relegating Illinois to the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten tournament. That's because the Hawkeyes split their two games with Ohio State, while the Illini were beaten in their only meeting with the Buckeyes.

"It's our fault that we're not in the lead," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "We didn't take care of business against Penn State (at home), at Indiana and at Michigan. Ohio State won a couple of close games and we didn't.

"At least we didn't sit back and pout. We've made progress as a team. We're shooting the ball better. Our bench is better. Our inside guys are better. Today we jumped on Dee's back, but other guys made some big plays."

Sixteen of Brown's 20 points came in the second half. Four other Illini were in double figures—Rich McBride and Shaun Pruitt each scored 12 and Smith and James Augustine had 10 apiece.

Playing his last home game, 6-foot-11-inch senior Paul Davis had 21 points and 14 rebounds for the Spartans (20-10, 8-8). Dee Brown's high school teammate at Proviso East, junior guard Shannon Brown, scored 20.

Dee Brown's three-point shooting enabled Illinois to surmount the 40-36 deficit it faced early in the second half and go on a 24-8 run.

"I don't think we had any energy left in us and Dee took over in that one stretch after sitting out [for nine minutes] the first half," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "That's why he's probably still the MVP of the league.

"Dee Brown is to them what Mateen Cleaves (point guard on the Spartans' 2000 national championship team and 1999 Final Four team) was to us. Certain guys just have a way to win. Dee shouldn't be called a great guard or a great shooter. He should just be called a winner."

Minus their top two power forwards—senior starter Matt Trannon (broken jaw) and freshman backup Marquise Gray (broken left foot)—the Spartans rallied to within 68-62 and got the ball when Augustine was whistled for a foul.

But an instant later, Augustine redeemed himself. He intercepted Maurice Ager's pass intended for Davis and scored on a slam, restoring order for Illinois with two minutes to play.

Augustinewas sidelined for 7 minutes 48 seconds after Goran Suton slammed into his left knee on a charging foul with only 3:35 elapsed in the game.

"It hurt for the next 15 minutes," said Augustine, who went to the dressing room with trainer Al Martindale to have the knee examined. "Hopefully, it's just bruised."

When Augustine went out, Carter came in and the 6-9 junior provided instant offense by scoring six of the Illini's next eight points. He also was strong on the backboards, finishing with six rebounds.

Augustine returned midway through the half, but Weber's personnel problems continued when two other starters—forward Brian Randle and Brown—were whistled for their second fouls. Both stayed on the bench for the rest of the half.

"Crazy things happen in a game," Weber said. "When Dee got his second I thought: 'I'll take him out a few minutes; if they make a run we'll get him back in there.'"

The run never came. Frazier played strong defense, Smith and McBride supplied outside shooting and Augustine and Pruitt asserted themselves down low.

Smith's basket from the corner at the buzzer was disallowed, enabling the Spartans to lead 35-34 at the half.

"We felt we were in good shape," Weber said. "At the start of the second half we came out very lethargic. Then, we had a nice stretch of defensive stops and Dee got us going."

"I was frustrated," Brown said of his first-half foul trouble. "I don't like to sit down. When I got the two fouls I had to sit. When I came back in I was determined to get in the flow.

"Playing on this court in this kind of atmosphere is tough. When I play [against Michigan State] I guess I get a little more juiced."

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