Tale of Two Cities VII: We Run This Town
It's been several hours since that game ended and I'm still not sure what I witnessed.
The game was going pretty much to the expected script. We built an early first half lead on some unsustainable three point shooting, our inexperience started to show, we turned the ball over 13 times, allowed UCLA to close the half on a 12-0 run and then extend to a 15 point lead with 17:59 left in the second half. That was pretty much going to be it. This young and scattershot team would learn a lesson on composure and be better in the long run for it.
It was shaping up to be the cliched "learning experience". Afterwards, we would talk with other Illini fans and say things like "yeah this team was bound to take some early lumps, but they'll be better come March!", but deep down the doubt would start to fester.
Then, suddenly Sencire.
The energizer bunny of the Illini freshmen guards - Harris checked into the game and single-handedly flipped the game upside down over a three minute stretch with his full court defensive pressure and intensity. UCLA coach Mick Cronin was dismissive of his impact in the post game press conference, but here's a tweet showing exactly when Harris entered the game on the ESPN win probability graph:
The box score will only show him with four points and two steals in just 10 minutes of play, but he was a +16 (!!) over those 10 minutes. That's hard to even comprehend.
Yet for all of his momentum shifting heroics on the court, to me his most important contribution of the night was that he awoke the beast - the Illini fans in the building.
And, honestly those fans might have been the biggest story of the entire day.
Walking the Strip during the day on Friday, it seemed like I encountered thousands of Illini fans, hundreds of Virginia fans, and about a half dozen Baylor and UCLA fans combined.
I am hanging this weekend with a group that includes my wife's best friend from childhood. She has literally no Illini affiliation whatsoever, but she absolutely just cannot get enough of the I-L-L chant. The whole dynamic tickles her to death. This is a girl born in Texas and living in L.A. who will not let ANY opportunity go by to let fly an "I-L-L!!" On the street, in the casino, in a restaurant, at the pool - if you are representing Illini orange and blue - you are going to hear it from this girl.
Her return response rate today: 100%. On what I would estimate l conservatively at 200 attempts.
So yeah - I had an idea of what the crowd breakdown in the building was going to be. I had NO idea.
It was a legitimate hostile takeover of T-Mobile Arena. Total attendance for the game was announced at just over 9000. Literally 80% of that number was Illini fans. Even I was shocked at the disparity, so you can imagine the response from the national media types in attendance:
And once Sencire Harris turned on the power, the Illini faithful were IN TO IT. There is no better crowd than the "down huge - come back in the second half and take the lead" crowd and when Skyy Clark converted an acrobatic twisting reverse layup to give us a 53-52 lead with 9:17 left, the roof came off the place. Hope they get that fixed by Sunday. We didn't trail again the rest of the way. Terrence Shannon, Jr just kept splashing threes and we closed the game on a 50-26 run en route to a 79-70 W.
(That reminds me - I have go cash in my Illinois money line + Over 144 parlay ticket. Cha-ching!!)
And speaking of Terrence Shannon, Jr. That is a dude right there. He tied a school record with 8 threes (in 9 attempts) and became a National POY candidate overnight. He is as soft spoken as they come, but make no mistake, he is an Ayo level assassin.
But I keep thinking about the crowd. I've been to literally hundreds of Illini games home and away over the years, but that crowd last night was top 10 for me. You might counter with "how can that be with only 8,000 or so in attendance?"
I can only respond with "if you were there you would agree". Vegas has its own built in energy and the Illini crowd took that energy and multiplied in ten fold.
Plus, the organizers of the Continental Main Event had smartly sold tickets only in the lower sections of the arena and had the upper deck levels curtained off. It gave the building a small college gym kind of an atmosphere and the Illini faithful did the rest - turning the place into our own personal Cameron Indoor.
This was the scene afterwards - as the jubilant (and surely lubricated) Illini faithful were heading out to celebrate on the Strip...
It’s an absolute party in the T-Mobile Arena pic.twitter.com/H7VdX4n6tY— Evan Webb (@webb_evan12) November 19, 2022
Make no mistake about it Illini fans - WE TRAVEL.