CHAMPAIGN (AP) — With about 2 1/2 minutes still left in the game, Illinois’ rabid “Orange Krush” student section started chanting “We’re No. 1! We’re No. 1!”
No. 5 Illinois certainly made a case for the top ranking last night, turning No. 1 Wake Forest into a nonconference patsy with a 91-73 rout that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated.
“They played infinitely better than we did. I don’t know how much more clearly I can say it,” Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser said. “They made shots that were open, they made shots that were contested. Their offense was exponentially better than our defense, hence the score of the game.”
Roger Powell Jr. scored 19 points, Dee Brown and Luther Head added 16 each and the Illini (5-0) beat Wake Forest (5-1) in every single phase of the game. Illinois led by double-digits the last 28-plus minutes of the game, and were up by as much as 32 in the second half.
That was even with Deron Williams having an off night. Williams, the preseason pick as Big Ten player of the year, missed much of the first half because of foul trouble and finished with only eight points, though he did have a team-high 11 assists.
“Playing without Deron, the best player, player of year is tough,” said Brown, who added seven assists. “He’s a great asset to our team, but when he goes out, someone else has got to step up, and I think Luther and Rog and myself made some shots and played hard.”
The Illini were so dominant in stretches they looked like the Globetrotters. They held the Demon Deacons to 39 percent shooting, and their two best players were never a factor. Chris Paul, the leading vote-getter on the AP’s preseason All-America team, had 10 while Justin Gray, MVP of the preseason NIT, had 11.
“I don’t know what to say,” Brown said when asked if the Illini should be No. 1. “After that performance, you tell me.”
The Illini are now 2-19 in games against No. 1 teams — but they won both played at Assembly Hall. They beat then-No. 1 Michigan State 57-55 in 1979 — if it’s any consolation to the Demon Deacons, the Spartans still won the national championship that year.
Illinois has now won 35 straight at home against non-conference opponents, a streak dating back to Nov. 17, 1998. The Illini are 67-3 overall at Assembly Hall since the 2000-01 season.
“You don’t get many chances to play a No. 1 team on national television,” said Jamaal Levy, who had six points and seven rebounds. “They were definitely ready. They proved they wanted it.”
And Wake Forest, which earned its first No. 1 ranking last week, proved it has some work to do. Though the Demon Deacons won the preseason NIT last weekend, they looked at times like they were still trying to find their rhythm against Providence and Arizona.
Illinois didn’t give the Deacons time to catch their feet, let alone get a rhythm. Harassed and badgered anytime they tried to get close to the basket, the Demon Deacons had no answer for Illinois’ speed — or its smoothness.
“We’re a good team, but the way they shot the ball they couldn’t be stopped,” Paul said. “And then they’d turn around and defend.”
The Illini shot a blistering 60 percent, including 8-of-16 from 3-point range as they raced out to a 54-33 lead at the half. They had assists on 27 of their 38 baskets, and they played with a crispness that will make opposing coaches jealous.
“We tried different defenses, but the bottom line from a defensive standpoint was we couldn’t guard them in man-to-man,” Prosser said.