CHAMPAIGN – Credit for reviving the Illinois-DePaul basketball rivalry Friday doesn’t go to either school. Big East and Big Ten Conference officials forced it by making the matchup a part of the annual Gavitt Tipoff Games.
The stubborn schools had no say in the matter.
But after a spicy showdown that should have left fans wanting more, shame on both schools if they don’t make an effort to continue it.
Next time, however, bring an officiating crew that isn’t so madly in love with their whistles.
With the volume cranked up for an in-state rivalry that sat dormant for 60 years, Illinois beat its toughest opponent to date 82-73 at the State Farm Center.
The game bogged down significantly, however, due to 59 personal fouls called and 63 free throws attempted. The two teams also combined for 35 turnovers.
Mark Smith led Illinois (3-0) with 21 points including 12-for-12 from the free throw line. Kipper Nichols matched his career high with 16 points and Aaron Jordan had his third straight productive outing with seven points and a team-high nine rebounds.
Justin Roberts led DePaul (1-2) with 19 points.
Michael Finke, who scored 9 points and blocked three shots for the Illini, said the physical nature of the game helped his team.
“There were a lot of whistles but some games are going to be like that,” Finke said. “It was a physical game. We were both trying to bring it to each other. We just had to keep driving and get to the free throw line.”
Illinois was in front most of the game, but the memory of what happened in this gym last Sunday was never far away. Illinois led by 14 over Tennessee-Martin with less than four minutes to play and had to hang on to win, 77-74.
This time, however, Illinois finished the game in a more controlled fashion.
Illinois led 69-64 with less than five minutes remaining before going on a 6-0 burst to create more breathing room.
Jordan hit a 3-pointer on a feed from Leron Black to make it 72-64. Then Te’Jon Lucas stole the ball and was fouled at the other end. He made one of two free throws to push the margin to 73-64. And when Finke scored on a fast break layup it was 75-64 and DePaul called timeout with 3:49 to go.
Smith continues to impress with his physical strength and he was the first Illini player DePaul coach Dave Leitao talked about by name.
“Mark Smith, a freshman, was probably the most poised player on the floor today,” Leitao said. “He got lost in the game and made more plays and got himself to the line. Going 12-for-12 was a credit to what he can do.
“He has broad shoulders and can absorb contact. His mental approach to the game was impressive.”
Through three games, Smith has taken advantage of his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame. He muscles his way through traffic and is 19-for-19 from the line on the season.
Illini coach Brad Underwood said his team took a step forward.
“Good slugfest,” Underwood said. “Punch counterpunch type of game and some growth on our part. I was really excited coming into this game because we had a really solid week of practice. We got better.
“I gave Kipper a hug after practice the other day and he was tremendous. I can promise you this: He will get a hug tomorrow. He was outstanding on a night when Leron Black had a tough night due to foul trouble.”
Illinois once again struggled from the 3-point line, this time making 5 of 23. For the season the Illini have made 15 of 64 – 23.4 percent.
Former Illini guard Jalen Coleman-Lands was at the game. He transferred to DePaul after John Groce was fired but is ineligible to play this season. He had to provide his own transportation to the game because NCAA transfer rules do not allow a transfer who is sitting out to travel with the team.
For the second time this season, Illinois has a quick two-day turnaround. The Illini are back in the State Farm Center at 4 p.m., Sunday to play host to Marshall.
R.I.P. -- J.C. Caroline, the former Illini football great who led the nation in rushing in 1953, died Friday at age 84. Caroline was a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.