- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

ROSEMONT, Ill. — A smothering press couldn’t make the better team choke.

Top-ranked Illinois sprinted past Wisconsin-Milwaukee 77-63 last night at Allstate Arena, overcoming the Panthers’ renowned press with backdoor baskets and 3-pointers.

Illinois didn’t seal its status as the leading contender for the national crown, but the Illini beat their newfound border rival convincingly to advance to the Elite Eight. Illinois (35-1) meets the winner of last night’s late game between Arizona and Oklahoma State in tomorrow’s Chicago Regional final.

“[Milwaukee] never lets you relax,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “They are persistent, and you have to match that. We could never stretch it away from them. Once we settled down and moved the ball side to side, we shot better.”

It was a matchup of strengths. Both teams offered three-guard lineups that could pester the opposing backcourt anywhere on the court. However, Illinois received enough production from its frontcourt to withstand Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s upset bid. Guards Dee Brown and Deron Williams led Illinois with 21 points each.

Milwaukee (26-6) failed to become the first 12th seed to upset a No. 1. The Panthers were never overwhelmed, but poor shot selection and spotty rebounding ended their 11-game winning streak. Their press proved erratic as Illinois beat it enough never to feel threatened.

“We were pretty good with handling the pressure,” Williams said. “We just tried to cut down on turnovers.”

Forward Joah Tucker led Milwaukee with 32 points, including 20 in the first half. However, the Panthers’ top player — guard Ed McCants — was scoreless for the first 21 minutes before finishing with 13.

The supposedly neutral site was a sea of orange. Nearly 90 percent of the crowd appeared to be Illinois backers, though four teams were playing at the venue. The Illini fans were so intense that extra police were stationed near Milwaukee’s bench. Illinois fans hate Panthers coach Bruce Pearl for his part in taping purported recruiting violations by Illinois in 1989. Illinois was cleared in that instance, but the investigation brought out other evidence that later resulted in sanctions to the school.

It didn’t take long for Illinois to dictate the game. Milwaukee grabbed a 12-8 lead, but a 13-3 Illinois run gave the Illini a 21-15 edge. The Panthers largely kept Illinois away from the basket, but the Illini found just enough cracks in the aggressive man defense for a smattering of layups to complement their outside shooting.

The press that led Milwaukee to its first Sweet 16 wasn’t abandoned, though. The Panthers kept Tucker back and let four defenders feed him the ball repeatedly to start fast breaks. Tucker scored 16 points in the first 17 minutes to keep Milwaukee within 29-26.

But Illinois countered with its own defensive stretch, converting three Panthers turnovers into seven straight points for a commanding 36-26 lead en route to a 39-32 halftime edge.

Illinois seemed intent on ending Milwaukee’s bid at the start of the second half. A 14-5 opening run capped by six straight points by Williams gave the Illini a 53-37 lead.

The staggered Panthers managed to close within 58-51, but another Williams 3-pointer ended a 4:23 Illinois drought and restored a double-digit margin.

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