Gather round, Illini faithful. Let me tell you about the time Jon Ekey drilled a contested jumper at the buzzer to down the much-hated Iowa Hawkeyes. Oh, you don't hate Iowa yet? Don't fret, young one. You will.
Let's handle this business in two parts.
PART ONE: THE RECAP
Illinois jumped all over Iowa early, dominating both sides of the ball en route to a comfortable double-digit lead. But it was early, and as is the way with early leads, it was soon squandered. Iowa took advantage of Illinois' eight first half turnovers to take a lead into halftime, 34-29.
The second half resembled much of the first half, primarily in that it was unmemorable. The majority of the ballgame seemed to blend together--a combination of turnovers and scattered 3-pointers. Illinois converted 7-of-19 three-pointers and out-rebounded Iowa by five. Iowa responded with defensive pressure, forcing 13 Illinois turnovers. It was a tight game throughout.
With around 10 minutes remaining in the ballgame, Illinois took the lead on a Jon Ekey and-1, a Rayvonte Rice fastbreak dunk and a smooth Joseph Bertrand jumper. They kept that lead, even extending it to five points during one stretch, but never pulled away. The slim lead became a tie game after a truly pathetic stretch where the Illini could not inbound the ball, then not move the ball past the Iowa full court press. Iowa tied the game with 23 seconds remaining, 63-63.
A cheap Iowa foul gave Illinois the ball with 13 seconds remaining, shot clock off, pressure on. Tracy Abrams dribbled under pressure, but succumbed. The play broke down and as time ticked away, the ball ended up in the hands of Jon Ekey.
Then Jon Ekey killed the Hawkeyes with his bare hands.
Talk about a hand in the face…what a shot by @Ekey33! #Illini #3key #TNT (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) pic.twitter.com/n5C9DH8m0q— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniHoops) March 9, 2014
Ekey: "Definitely the biggest shot of my life." #Illini— Steve Greenberg (@SLGreenberg) March 9, 2014
Tracy Abrams free throws against Missouri and Jon Ekey's buzzer beating 3-pointer at Iowa. These will be the two biggest moments of this Illini season.
PART TWO: ENJOY THIS
College athletics differ from the professional game in a few obvious ways, the most primary difference being the player paychecks. But both sports are marketed the same. They're presented and broadcasted as though they're a part of the same universe. This faux overlap too often hides the greatest attribute of college sports: the opportunity to enjoy small accomplishments.
There are hundreds of college teams. To ever expect your team to win the National Championship is absurd, and that's okay. If that's the only goal that can bring happiness, then only less than 1 percent of teams end their seasons happy. Of course, this isn't true.
College athletics allow for smaller victories. They allow for conference championships, ACC-Big Ten challenges, rivalries, and tournaments, both at the beginning of the season and at the end. They encourage passionate, primal fandom. They breed joy and heartbreak, and emotions that come at all points in the season, not just the championship. They let you yell out in a bar and high five strangers. These things are victorious, and tonight was a small victory.
We beat Iowa, at Iowa, on a buzzer beater. It was glorious.