Lou Henson. Kendall Gill. Nick Anderson. Kenny Battle.
The Flyin’ Illini encapsulated the late 1980s for Illini fans and were a defining team of the decade for college basketball. This special team is often thought of as one of the greatest teams in the history of the University of Illinois, as head coach Lou Henson led the star-studded squad to a 31-5 record, losing a heartbreaker to No. 10 Michigan in the Final Four.
While Henson’s teams were known for an aggressive full-court defense, scoring was abundant in the 1988-89 season. The Fighting Illini scored 100 points or more eight times over the course of the season, including a 127-100 victory over LSU in Baton Rouge on Dec. 22. The Illini blew out the Tigers behind 68 percent shooting from the field.
LSU head coach Dale Brown said that Illini team was “the finest group of athletes I’ve ever seen in this gym.” The 127 points is still a record for the Fighting Illini to this day.
If you’re like me and you never had the pleasure of seeing this team in person, you will eat up this compilation of Flyin’ Illini dunks:
The 1988 team had so many special moments that fans have been craving to see ever since. Aside from topping 30 wins and going 14-4 in the Big Ten, the Illini defeated 12 ranked teams that season, including wins over No. 10 Missouri (in the annual Braggin’ Rights game), No. 3 Indiana, and No. 8 Michigan. And in these games, there was no shortage of incredible moments.
I had a chance to catch up with Kenny Battle, one of the greats from that 1988-89 Flyin’ Illini team. He is still as happy as ever to have been a part of that legendary team.
“It was great being on the team,” Battle said. “We had a great group of guys from the state, and we had one goal: to win a championship.”
Some might actually be unfamiliar, however, with the fact that Battle did not start his collegiate career at Illinois. He was up in DeKalb for his freshman and sophomore seasons before his coach was fired, leaving Battle looking for a new destination.
“I knew I wanted to stay in the state,” Battle said. “Henson was recruiting me prior to going to (Northern Illinois), and I decided to become an Illini.”
Illini nation was happy he did. Along with Kendall Gill, Nick Anderson and Stephen Bardo, Battle made a formidable group of athletes known for tough-nosed defense and hustle.
On the team’s will, Battle said: “We would never quit. Regardless of circumstances, we fought to the end.”
And he’s right. Several times during the Illini’s historic run to the Final Four, they were down by double-digits but fought their way back to win games. Despite all these nail-biting victories and exciting finishes, Battle had a hard time pinning down one memory that stood out above the rest.
“Every game I played was a favorite of mine,” he said.
And let’s not forget the fans.
“The fans were unbelievable. You would walk out of the tunnel and hear them, and it was one of a kind. They would come out and say something to you on campus or at the mall… shake your hand and say thank you. It was a great atmosphere around the state at that time.”
Equally impactful was the University’s winningest coach: Lou Henson.
“Lou and I were always on the same page,” Battle said. “He’s just a special guy. He’s a Hall of Fame coach. He always had his team prepared to play well. I could go on and on about him.”
Not surprisingly, Battle is proud of what he and his teammates accomplished 30 years ago.
“It feels good…to be a part of something that special, to leave a great legacy,” he said. “It’s just unbelievable that it was 30 years ago. For (my kids) to understand its significance and have former coaches and players talk about their dad and about what [the team] meant to the University is great.”
The 1988-89 Fighting Illini team featured one of the most athletic and talented rosters the school has ever seen.
Here are just a few of the names you might remember:
Battle, who transferred to Illinois after two years at NIU, was the second leading scorer for Lou Henson’s Illini. During the 1988-89 season, he averaged 16.6 points and 4.8 boards, and set an Illini record with 89 steals. Battle was a co-captain of the team, Second Team All-Big Ten, and Honorable Mention All-America.
Nick Anderson was the scoring leader for the Illini and might’ve been considered the greatest leader of the team. He averaged 18 points per game and was named team MVP, along with First Team All-Big Ten Honors and Honorable Mention All-America. Anderson was also named as the Midwest Region’s Most Outstanding Player for the NCAA Tournament.
Bardo, who you can often hear these days calling Illini games on Big Ten Network, was the defensive specialist. He was sixth on the team in scoring with 8.1 points per contest, but won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Gill, the third-leading scorer on the team, was just a junior when the Illini made their run. Although he missed several games during the season due to injury, he averaged 15.4 points per game and was named to the Midwest Region All-Tournament Team along with Battle and Anderson.
In Gill’s senior season, he averaged 20 points and led the Illini back to the NCAA Tournament.
The Memorable Games
Braggin’ Rights/Border War
The Braggin’ Rights game — or, back then known as the Border War — is almost always the most fun game of the year, but in 1988 it featured two teams who had aspirations to make deep into the NCAA Tournament. Missouri, ranked No. 10 at the time, led by as many as 18 in the first half, but Illinois cut the lead to just seven points at the half, thanks to a Marcus Liberty dunk.
In the final moments, Battle put the Illini up by one with a free throw, and a subsequent steal and Larry Smith layup sealed the game.
Nick Anderson’s Game-Winner vs. Indiana
If you’ve been to a game at State Farm Center in recent years, you would recognize the final shot of this game easily. In fact, any Illini fan should remember this highlight.
The game, played at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, was against the No. 3-ranked Hoosiers. At the end of regulation, with a tightly contested game, Indiana’s Jay Edwards made a fadeaway jumper on the baseline that had to go over the backboard. He nailed it with just a few ticks left on the clock, tying the game at 67.
Lou Henson had something up his own sleeve, though. Stephen Bardo made a pass over three-quarters the length of the court, right into the hands of Nick Anderson. As time expired, Anderson pulled up from way beyond the three-point line. The rest is history.
Reaching the Final Four
The Final Four was set for Seattle that year, but the Illini had a long way to go to make it there. After wins over McNeese State, Ball State and Louisville, Illinois would face its greatest opponent in No. 7 seed Syracuse for the rights to make it to the Final Four.
Syracuse provided a difficult test. Again, the Illini found themselves in a double-digit first half deficit. And again, they clawed their way back into the game.
With just seven minutes left in the game, the Illini took the lead on an acrobatic Battle layup, making the score 70-68 in favor of the Illini. Just as big of a basket was Kendall Gill’s putback dunk of a missed layup by Battle. Syracuse battled back from a six-point deficit, but missed a three-pointer on its final possession, sealing Illinois’ 89-86 victory.
Unfortunately, the Illini were unable to clinch a berth in the national championship after falling to Michigan, 83-81, in the Final Four.
But for the highlights, moments, personalities, and name, the Flyin’ Illini cemented themselves in Illini lore for what happened during the 1988-89 season.
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