Illini seethe hatred toward Eric Gordon (and family), but IU wins anyway
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois hit Eric Gordon (and family) with everything it had Thursday night:
• More than 16,000 vengeful fans, who booed the Indiana freshman's every dribble for a solid 2 1/2 hours.
• A chippy chest bump from Illini guard Chester Frazier during pregame introductions, rocking Gordon several feet backward.
• Intermittent chants of "Liar! Liar! Liar!"
• Relentless defense from as many as three different Illini players.
• And near the end of this double-overtime thriller, when nothing else was working, a handful of orange-and-blue beads were lobbed onto the heads of a courtside section of Indiana fans that included Gordon's parents. Ice, too. At least one IU fan had to be restrained from going after the orange-clad fans above.
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"He's the reason we're in this situation," the kid said. "He's the reason we've got a losing record."
You have to be good to make this many people act this petty. And Eric Gordon is very good.
Gordon had the audacity to change his teenage mind, originally pledging his collegiate services to Illinois and then switching to rival Indiana. The massive impact of that switcheroo can be seen in the two teams' records: Illinois is 10-14, Indiana is 19-3.
He's been that important. To both programs.
(A balancing note for IU fans tisking at Illinois' petulance: Don't forget the hatefest you staged for North Carolina star Sean May when the Bloomington product came home to play at Indiana.)
That's why this was such a rugged, rude night in the heartland, where basketball grudges don't die easily. The intimidation tactics worked for a while. But in the end, none of it was enough.
In a game that ended with extra security surrounding the celebrating Gordons and their Hoosier compatriots, Indiana pulled out an 83-79 victory. Along the way, the Hoosiers subjected Illinois to one more dose of misery in a season rife with it.
It ended with Gordon rebounding from a one-point train wreck in the first half, when he was clearly rattled by the reception and the Illinois defense, to finish with a team-high 19 points. But it went beyond that -- Gordon twisted the knife in Illinois' ribs by flukishly banking in a 3-pointer with 25 seconds left in regulation, tying the game and bringing on overtime.
"Kind of emblematic of our season," said Ilinois coach Bruce Weber, who is taking heat from some fans for too many recruiting whiffs -- namely You Know Who.
The Illini now have lost seven games by six points or less. Put a soon-to-be NBA lottery pick on their offensively challenged team, and they might have won all of those.
Instead Gordon suits up for Kelvin Sampson, the other half of IU's Darth Vader duo. The Illini fans hit him with chants of "Cheater! Cheater! Cheater!" in reference to Sampson's NCAA rules violations for impermissible phone calls. Weber doesn't think highly of his colleague, either, as evidenced by another lightning-quick postgame handshake and a crisp, 180-degree turn for the locker room.
Gordon did get a brief handshake near the team bus from Illinois assistant Wayne McClain, more than he received from Weber. The kid wasn't going to admit much about how tough this game was, but he did acknowledge that he's glad it's over.
For everyone in orange, it may never be over. You could almost hear how much the Gordon affair burns Weber in the losing coach's postgame comments.
"Our kids really respect E.J. and what a good player he is," Weber said, with rare softness in his voice. "He's a special player, as good a freshman as I've seen in 20-some years of coaching."
And he was wearing a road uniform in Champaign.
So this game had been circled (in blood) on the calendar for a long time. Given that Gordon hadn't handled the Illinois onslaught well last month in the friendly confines of Bloomington, there was reason to wonder how he'd fare here.
To break the ice pregame, Indiana assistant coach Dan Dakich told Gordon, "If you're worried about some engineering student from Wilmette in an orange shirt, you're not as tough as I thought you were."
For the first 20 minutes, the engineering students from the Chicago 'burbs were winning. Gordon was a mess.
It seemed to start in the alternating player introductions, when Frazier substituted a forceful chest bump for the standard handshake at midcourt. Both coaches downplayed that gesture -- Sampson saying he thought Frazier was just amped up, and Weber saying Frazier had done the same thing in Illinois' previous game against Purdue.
"Well," said Gordon, "that's what he did, and we can't worry about that."
But the kid played the first half like someone trying too hard to shut up everyone in orange. The Big Ten's leading scorer missed all four field goals, one of two foul shots and committed two turnovers. Illinois led by four at halftime, and the crowd was eating it up.
"He probably was pressing a little bit," Sampson said. "But I think in the second half he played like a man."
Sampson said Gordon received halftime counsel from his teammates. Once he slowed down, he heated up.
Gordon finally started hitting shots and getting to the free-throw line. But the Illini kept the advantage with a stunning performance from freshman guard Demetri McCamey, a 7-point-a-game guy who went off for 31. Illinois pushed its lead to 12 points early in the second half.
But these Illini are criminally incapable of finishing a game. They shoot free throws as if the basket is moving -- and nobody was more painful to watch than senior big man Shaun Pruitt. He missed his first six free throws of the night, including one potential game-winner at the end of regulation and two at the end of the first OT.
That's the leaky boat Illinois finds itself rowing in circles: trying to find anyone who can put the ball in the bucket with any reliability. The future looks promising for the Illini -- suspended guard Jamar Smith and Kentucky transfer Alex Legion will be in uniform next season, and they've lined up a bunch of commitments from the classes of 2009 and '10.
But Eric Gordon was an Illinois commitment once, too. Today he's an Indiana Hoosier -- a star on a ranked team. Thursday night, he survived what undoubtedly will be the toughest night of what should be a brief college career.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.