Every year, the Big Ten/ACC Challenge falls right around my birthday. This makes things easy in terms of a present, as all I ever ask for is an Illini win, and this year they listened to my request. After a shaky start, the Illini had a fantastic second half and beat Maryland 71-62.
This is a really big win for Illinois. It was the first road game, and Maryland was by no means easy to beat. As predicted, Coach Weber didn’t dig deep into the bench, but the standard guys got it done and now Illinois is 7-0. This was the third straight Big Ten/ACC Challenge win, their sixth win total- tying them for the most Big Ten/ACC Challenge wins in the Big Ten (Wisconsin also has six).
The Illini scored first, but then Maryland took over and led by as many as 9. Illinois continued to stay in the game, but Maryland led all the way up to halftime, 35-31. In the second half, Maryland got tired and Illinois took over. Two Brandon Paul free throws tied the game up four minutes into the half at 37-37, and then a few minutes later a Sam Maniscalco three gave Illinois the lead, which they held onto until the end. Maryland kept the game super close, but Mr. Clutch Maniscalco made shots when it mattered, and played the shot clock like a violin. Up by 9 points with 30 seconds to go, the game was essentially in the bag.
After tonight’s performance, I am super duper excited about this team. I’d like to welcome Paul back to the Illini again, as he had 17 points, 3 assists, 7 rebounds and 2 steals. The real star tonight was Maniscalco, who had 24 points, with five coming behind the 3-point line, where he was 5-8.
Another key to the game was assists. Illinois had 13, while Maryland just had 5. Then there is the fact that Illinois made 18-20 free throws, though we have to remember that Nnanna Egwu wasn’t a part of that stat (I kid because I care). The Illini had 21 fouls, something that they will need to watch out for. On the whole, you have to be extremely pleased with this game. The only real problem I can see is that Weber relied heavily on his starters, leaving the freshman (aside from Tracy Abrams, who had 3 rebounds and a team-high 4 assists) on the bench. The older guys were getting the job done, but as the season goes on Weber is going to need to rely on the bench just a little more.
Now I can finally exhale and believe that these guys might be able to do something this year. I was fully prepared for Illinois to lose this game, and write about how it’s understandable, they’re young and on the road. The crowd was loud and obnoxious, but they were able to focus and win the game in a convincing fashion. I have to give a ton of credit to Maniscalco, who really led the team to this win. Picking him up as a senior was an excellent move, and it seems like he is doing exactly what Weber wanted.
Thanks again for this fantastic birthday present guys, I’ll see you on Saturday at the Assembly Hall vs. Gonzaga. It’ll be nice to be home again, and the Illini should be overflowing with confidence.