By Dave Wischnowsky-
(CBS) In what’s become as much of a Chicago holiday tradition as people ice skating at Millennium Park when they’re, you know, not skating down icy city sidewalks, the University of Illinois this afternoon holds its annual basketball battle at the United Center.
Today’s 4 p.m. tilt against a 10-2 UNLV squad that upset top-ranked North Carolina last month is the biggest test of the season thus far for the 19th-ranked and unbeaten Illini (10-0). It’s also Illinois’ first chance to redeem itself in the Windy City after last year’s embarrassing 57-54 loss to Illinois-Chicago at the UC.
That game was a dud (to say the least). But, over the years, the United Center has played host to scads of great Illini games, both during the Big Ten Tournament and otherwise.
And, so, in honor of the Illini’s long-running UC series, I thought I’d share today what I consider the five most memorable non-conference games that Illinois has played at the United Center:
1. Illinois 81, Arizona 73, Dec. 16, 2000
The second of three battles between the national powers during the 2000-01 season – including the championship game of the Maui Invitational and the Elite Eight – was a doozy.
Not only was Illini guard Cory Bradford toted off the floor by teammates after setting an NCAA record with a three-pointer in his 74th consecutive game, but Arizona coach Lute Olson memorably ripped Lucas Johnson in the postgame presser for the Illini forward’s physical play against Richard Jefferson.
2. Duke 72, Illinois 69, Nov. 30, 1999
In the first year of the Big Ten-ACC challenge, Illinois drew Duke and held the game at the United Center, rather than Champaign. The contest between the teams – both featuring freshman phenom point guards named Williams (Jason and Frank) – went down to the wire, with the Blue Devils emerging victorious.
Frank Williams and Cory Bradford scored 14 points apiece to lead the Illini, while Duke was powered by 21 from Chris Carrawell.
3. Gonzaga 85, Illinois 83 (OT), Jan. 2, 2010
To ring in the New Year two years ago, the Illini and the Zags took part in a wild one at the United Center. The game saw Gonzaga assume a 21-point first-half lead, then saw Illinois storm back for an eight-point advantage before the Bulldogs eventually rallied themselves and prevailed in overtime.
Senior forward Dominique Keller had his best game as an Illini, scoring 22 points. Gonzaga, meanwhile, was led by Steven Gray’s 20 points and Elias Harris’ 19 points and 16 rebounds.
4. Illinois 84, Kansas 70, Dec. 18, 1999
Back when Roy Williams was still coaching Kansas and Lon Kruger running the show at Illinois, the Illini and Jayhawks squared off at the United Center.
Illinois, probably still stinging a bit from the three-point loss to Duke at the UC just a few weeks earlier, took it to 8th-ranked Kansas behind 21 points from Cory Bradford and 16 points and 12 boards from Marcus Griffin.
5. Illinois 94, Arkansas 91, Dec. 8, 2001
With Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson seeking his 500th career victory, the Razorbacks and their frenetic pace rolled in to Chicago but couldn’t quite outrun the Illini.
Trailing by 12 in the second half, Illinois rallied behind a masterful 24-point performance from Frank Williams that included 18 free throws, as well 21 points from Brian Cook. Arkansas was led by 29 points from guard Brandon Dean and 28 points from Chicago native Jannero Pargo, who drained seven three-pointers.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.