MEN’S BASKETBALL: Tops fall to Fighting Illini

Michael Casagrande

When Western entered its first round NCAA tournament match-up with fourth-seeded Illinois, it held few advantages over the heavily favored Big Ten Conference tournament champs.

But Western coach Dennis Felton knew that his team’s experience would not allow them to be intimidated by a team like Illinois.

“I certainly didn’t expect us to be intimidated,” Felton said.? “We’ve proven over the long-haul, the last three years, that we belong on the national landscape and we can beat anybody.”

The senior foursome of David Boyden, Nate Williams, Mike Wells and Filip Videnov looked to put the team and carry the team to the promised land.

Williams would not be in awe of Illinois because of their No. 4 seeding the West Region.

“Technically, a seed is just a number,” Williams said after the game. “It just like playing any other game, they just have a number beside their name.”

Boyden, the motivational leader and captain of the Toppers, got the party started with a three-point statement just over a minute into the game. As he ran down the floor, Boyden fired up his team along with the thousands of Topper fans that made the three and a half hour journey with his ear-to-ear smile and giddy screams.

As the Toppers extended their lead to 22-14 after a Wells jumper with 10:10 remaining the first half, the RCA Dome began to look like Diddle Arena on steroids.

Even neutral fans took Western under their wing as the fans in orange looked to be out numbered.

The cult-like Western following refused to give up on their beloved Hilltoppers as the Illini answered with a 13-0 run that turned an eight point lead into a five point deficit.

The Western resolve was too strong to allow the Illini take over the game as predicted.

As the horn sounded at the end of the half, the Toppers ran to the locker room with momentum. All-American and National Player of the Year candidate Brian Cook picked up his second foul with 0:00.3 remaining.

A pair of Williams free throws left the heralded Cook with his head shaking with frustration.

Felton appeared to have Cook and the Illini right where he wanted them.

“Western played the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” Illinois coach Bill Self said following the game.

Despite only connecting on 4 of 13 three-point shots, the Toppers were only behind by three.

Sophomore guard Patrick Sparks scored only six points and made only two of eight field goals, but the hole was only three. A vast improvement on the 14-point disparity following the first half in last season’s NCAA first-round tilt with Stanford.?

After 20 minutes, the seniors recorded 20 of the Toppers 28 first-half points.

But it was freshmen coming off the bench that provided a spark for the Toppers in the beginning of the second half. Guard Anthony Winchester, a native of nearby Austin, Ind. responded with a flurry of three point daggers to the hearts of the Illini nation.

The Austin Assassin drained three jumpers from behind the arc in the span of six minutes to keep the Toppers in the game.

The see-saw battle saw Illinois extend their lead to 63-55, but seniors Williams and Boyden would not go down without a fight.

A Sparks-to-Williams alley-oop cut the margin to 63-57 and a Boyden three-pointer with 0:57 made it a one-possession game.

But the Illini were just too strong in the closing minutes and the Toppers exited the NCAA field for the third consecutive year in a first round defeat.

The ovation was one final salute to the senior class that came to the Hill on “some hot air and a promise” four years ago according to Felton.

“Number one, I told them, (the seniors) I’m awfully proud of them for everything they have done,” Felton said after the game. “I told them how grateful I was of all the blood, sweat and effort they poured into this program for the past four years and how successful they have been, becoming great champions.”

The same crew that struggled through an 11-18 record in their freshman season, left the RCA Dome as Hilltopper heroes.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected].