December 12, 2010

Men's basketball lets a chance slip in icy Champaign

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- No. 16 Illinois seemed ripe for the picking against Northern Colorado men's basketball Sunday afternoon in Assembly Hall.

Neal Kingman tied a career high with 21 points, the Bears hit 14 of 16 free throws, and they connected on a season-high 12 3-pointers in a 86-76 loss that saw them score 50 points in the second half.

Illinois' historic Assembly Hall holds more than 16,000, but snow and icy winter conditions -- which have grounded the Bears in Champaign for the night -- limited what could have been a hostile crowd to about 5,100.

Pair all that with All-American candidate Demetri McCamey scoring just two points in the first half and 11 in the game for Illinois (10-1) and you have the recipe for a mid-major road upset against a ranked Big Ten program.

The Bears (4-4) committed a season-high 24 turnovers, though, and that's hard to overcome, regardless of your opposition.

Northern Colorado outscored the Illini 50-41 in the second half, turning an ugly 45-26 halftime deficit into a respectable final score in its first game against a ranked opponent in three seasons. The 76 points given up is tied for the most Illinois has surrendered in regulation this season.

"The last word we wrote on our whiteboard as we left the locker room was 'Compete like we belong,'" Bears head coach B.J. Hill said. "We played a game in a venue like this at Arizona, and I just wanted the guys to believe they belonged on the floor with a top-20 team in the country. We did that for 20 minutes, but we sure as heck didn't do it for the first 20."

Northern Colorado opened the second half with an 11-5 run, with a 3-pointer from Elliott Lloyd, a pair of three-balls from Kingman and two free-throws from Kaba. The run pulled the score to 50-37 with 17:07 to play.

The Bears later got to within 10, 67-57, after the second media break with a 9-0 run, capped by Devon Beitzel's three free throws after he was fouled.

Hill took a timeout immediately and told his team, "These next four minutes are going to be an unbelievable battle. Here's a chance to prove yourself."

The speech wasn't enough to slow Illinois' D.J. Richardson (14 points) or McCamey's second-half surge (nine of his 11), and the Illini pushed their lead back to a comfortable 75-59.

The whole story could have been different, though, had the Bears not gone more than eight minutes in the second half without a field goal.

Chris Kaba (10 points) and Beitzel (13) combining for just three points in the first half, hitting a combined one-for-12 from the field, didn't help either.

"It's frustrating because the last three days in practice," Hill said, "we shared the ball in our motion and the stuff we do on offense, we shared the ball better than any team I've been a part of in 15 years of college basketball. But doing it in practice and doing it in a game like this is completely different.

"I was hoping we had made that step, but we showed tonight that we haven't cleared that hurdle. To give them credit, they figured it out -- we had three times as many assists in the second half than what we did in the first half -- but to do what this program and these guys want to do, we've got to figure it out for 40 minutes."

Kingman led Northern Colorado with 10 of his 21 in the first half after hitting four of six attempts from the field, including two of three 3-pointers. He finished the game an efficient 7-of-9 from the field, to go along with five rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal.

Kingman's family hails from the Champaign area (his mom and dad met at Illinois State), and the nearly-20 person Kingman contingent in the stands might have had something to do with the performance.

"Neal's had a great year to this point," Hill said. "If he's going to play like this in front of his family from Champaign and Peoria (Ill.) I'm going to fly them to Greeley and for every game we play. He played a heck of a game and competed his butt off."

The Bears hit 37 percent from the field in the first 20 minutes and 36 percent from beyond the arc.

Those are decent numbers in a spacious and foreign road gym, but Northern Colorado wasn't helped a bit by 13 turnovers before the break. That's as many or more than they committed in three of their previous seven games.

NOTES: Neal Kingman tied career high with 21 points … Illinois led by as many as 22 in the second half … Bears shoot 87.5 pct. From the free-throw line (14-16), improving on season-long mark of 81.8 (2nd nationally) … Bears hit season-high 12 3-pointers, extending streak of five or more 3-pointers in a game to 31 games (tied for third-longest such streak in the nation) … Devon Beitzel scores 13 points in the game, becoming the 18th player in school history to score 1,000 points in his career (1,011) … The 20-person Northern Colorado traveling party has been snowed into Champaign until at least Monday night … The Bears were originally headed to Chicago after the game, to catch a flight to Denver early Monday.