Keller goes from zero to hero
Forward comes in for Tisdale, comes up big for Illini
As Keller approached the scorer's table and entered the game, Weber wasn't sure exactly what he was going to get from his senior forward. Playing Keller this season has been like rolling the dice for Weber. Keller has contributed at times for the Illini, but Weber hasn't trusted him enough to play in close games and has questioned his attitude when things aren't going his way.
Lately, Keller has barely even seen the floor. He played six minutes, scored two points and grabbed one rebound two games ago in Illinois' loss to Missouri. In the team's overtime win over Northwestern earlier this week, he played six minutes, scored no points and grabbed three rebounds.
But on Saturday, Weber had no choice. Without Tisdale, who was coming off a career-high 31-point game, Weber needed Keller.
Keller didn't let him down. He went off for career highs of 22 points and nine rebounds in Illinois' 85-83 overtime loss to Gonzaga at the United Center. He also sent the game into overtime with a 3-pointer with nine seconds remaining, dished out two assists, blocked two shots and recorded three steals.
Keller's afternoon, like those for his Illini teammates, started out slow. As Gonzaga built its lead to 21 points in the first half, Keller missed a 3-pointer, missed a shot inside and turned the ball over during his four minutes in the game.
Slowly, he picked up his production. He started by dropping in a 10-footer while being fouled at 8:46 of the first half. He sank the free throw and pulled Illinois within 33-16. On Illinois' following possession, he scored over Gonzaga 7-footer Robert Sacre in the low post to pull the Illini within 15 points. He would cut Gonzaga's advantage to 12 with a 16-foot jumper and then later to 11 with an offensive rebound and putback.
Keller exceeded his season averages with his first-half performance against Gonzaga. His seven points and three rebounds through 20 minutes would just be the start, though.
In the second half, Keller threw down a two-handed dunk to tie the game at 50. He then gave the Illini their first lead of the game (54-52) when he missed on one putback opportunity, grabbed a second offensive rebound and made a short jumper from the baseline while being knocked to the ground. As he lay on the floor, he punched his fists into the air.
Keller's bigger shots would follow. With 3:15 left in the second half, he scored inside to put Illinois ahead 74-73. With 1:09 remaining, he sank a jumper to put it up 76-75. And finally after Demetri McCamey missed a 3-pointer to tie the game, Mike Davis grabbed the offensive rebound and passed the ball out to a wide-open Keller at top of the key. Keller drained the 3-pointer and put the game into overtime. Before returning to the bench, Keller pounded his chest and looked into the crowd.
"I wasn't thinking about the pressure, the time or the score," Keller said. "I just shot. I didn't think about it all. Fortunately, I was able to get it in."
After the loss, Keller sat at the news conference with his head down as his teammates spoke. He was a major reason for why Illinois wasn't embarrassed in front of 20,000-plus fans, but he still felt responsible for the loss.
"There's a bunch of plays [that cost us], but I felt it was definitely the big guys' fault in this game," Keller said. "They had too many opportunities to score easy layups. There's nothing we can do about it now. All we can do now is get ready for Iowa."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.