Illinois holds on in tourney

By wire services
Published March 14, 2005

CHICAGO - As top-ranked Illinois celebrated its Big Ten tournament title with the traditional net-cutting ceremony, James Augustine was trying to figure out what he was going to eat.

Then in the middle of the euphoria came an announcement he wasn't expecting: he'd been voted the MVP of the tournament.

"I was just over there talking to Nick (Smith) about what was going to be for dinner," Augustine said. "He gave me a hard time and I had to give a speech. I had no idea. I was surprised with it."

With Augustine and Roger Power clogging up the middle for most of the game, the Illini built a 16-point lead and held on Sunday to beat No. 23 Wisconsin 54-43 for the Big Ten title.

Wisconsin lost for the third time to Illinois this season.

"He (Augustine) said, "I'm so hungry, what the heck are they going to have in that room?' He really wasn't thinking about being the MVP. They're all like that. They're loose and free and very competitive," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who coached his second straight game following his mother's death Friday.

Illinois, the nation's top-ranked team, also ran away with the regular-season title, losing only its final game at Ohio State.

This was the first time the Illini won both the regular-season and tournament titles in the same year. Their only other conference tournament victory came in 2003.

As expected, the Illini (32-1) were awarded the No. 1 seed in the Chicago Regional of the NCAA Tournament. They will play Fairleigh Dickinson in a first-round game Thursday at Indianapolis, a two-hour drive from Champaign.

Known for its stellar guard play, Illinois' big men were a major factor in sending the Illini to a school-record 32nd win.

"At the beginning of the season everybody questioned our big men. We showed it's not a weakness but one of our strengths," said guard Deron Williams, who dribbled out the final seconds of the clock Sunday after the Illini had held off a late Badgers run.

The Illini didn't shoot well again Sunday - Dee Brown went scoreless and was 0-for-8 from the field - but they turned up the defense, especially on Wisconsin scoring leaders Alando Tucker and Mike Wilkinson.

Wisconsin (22-8) will keep playing, too, facing Northern Iowa in a first-round game at Oklahoma City on Friday.