Illinois showed up Saturday at the United Center as the 12th-ranked team in The Associated Press Top 25.
UIC made the one-mile bus ride across the Eisenhower Expressway as the nation’s 244th-best team, according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.
Or, if you prefer Jeff Sagarin’s formula, UIC pulled into the UC’s driveway as the nation’s No. 261 team.
Either way, Howard Moore’s players didn’t need their bus to float back to campus after matching the biggest victory in school history.
The Flames ignited upon reaching their locker room after pulling off a 57-54 shocker over Illinois before 13,117 primarily orange-clad fans.
They equaled their win over No. 12 Butler on Jan. 10, 2007, at the UIC Pavilion, though this meant more because of the name on the other team’s orange jerseys.
“You would have thought that we just won the national championship,” said UIC assistant coach Al Biancalana.
And you would have thought Illinois expected a friendly scrimmage instead of winding up on the wrong end of a fierce sibling rivalry.
The Illini (10-2), which didn’t take their first lead until 9:46 remained, shot a season-low 33 percent and scored 25 points below their season average.
“I have been scared, to be honest,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “We haven’t had great practices … I didn’t think we came out with great energy. We’ve had horrible starts.
“And we’ve relied on shooting. And then tonight we didn’t shoot well. That’s been our thing. I thought we shot way too many quick 3s.”
Weber thought UIC (5-7) set the tone by breaking out to an 11-2 lead in the opening four minutes senior Robo Kreps bombed in 3 early 3-pointers then opening the second half with a 10-2 run.
But that shortchanged the fact the Flames owned the game’s final five-plus minutes as well.
Illinois held a 49-41 lead as the media timeout came with 6:26 left. UIC hit the huddle without a basket since the 16:12 mark.
“That’s the point where usually, in the past, we collapse,” Biancalana said. “I thought Howard did a wonderful job during that timeout of calming everybody down, refocusing, and I thought we showed incredible poise.”
Kreps stopped the dry spell with his first 3-pointer since the early minutes. Senior Paul Carter added his lone 3-pointer to make it 51-51 with 2:52 to go.
“Coach told me if I would have missed that shot he would have killed me,” Carter said.
Then the Illini and the Flames kept swapping the lead with free throws until 22.9 seconds to go, when nobody blocked out 290-pound center Darrin Williams. He tipped in Kreps’ missed layup to give UIC a 55-54 edge.
Then came a crazed flurry that might haunt Illinois as long as the loss.
D.J. Richardson missed a 3-pointer. Brandon Paul couldn’t convert a flying two-handed dunk follow. Jereme Richmond came down with that rebound, but Demetri McCamey missed an open 3-pointer.
As Mike Tisdale committed his fifth foul on McCamey’s miss, Paul had to be helped off the floor after spraining his left ankle. He needed crutches to get around after the game and might not play Wednesday against Missouri.
Add Paul’s status to the suddenly endless list of worries for Illinois.
“I think we’ve lost our sense of urgency,” said McCamey, who led everyone with 16 points and 6 assists. “We’ve got to huddle up and we’ve got to get the fellas rolling, because you can go either up or down from this loss.”Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.