To me, my favorite moment should seem pretty obvious. When Illinois upset a top-10 Michigan State team at State Farm Center, sending Orange Krush rushing for the floor for the first time in years, it was special. It was memorable, and it was what the program deserves.
It was a trying year for plenty of Illinois teams, and men’s basketball was no exception. Yet, moments like that make the entire journey worth it. I won’t go as far to say that beating the Spartans, who eventually made the Final Four, took the sting out of losing to Florida Atlantic in overtime at home, but it certainly made me proud to be following this team. It made me ecstatic for Aaron Jordan, who certainly has not had the four years he expected in Champaign. It made me proud for the freshman class, especially Ayo Dosunmu, who becomes validated in choosing Illinois by such a win.
We don’t get many of those moments with the Illini; that one just meant more.
The 55-31 beatdown of Minnesota was my favorite moment of the year. Coming into the game, I had no expectation Illinois would win — let alone win by such a large margin. The week before, Illinois was bludgeoned by the Maryland Terps by 30. The week before that, a 29-point loss to Wisconsin. Optimism wasn’t just low, it was non-existent.
P.J. Fleck is the anti-Lovie Smith to me, and I bought into that and felt that Lovie’s easy going, laid-back approach towards teaching was more genuine than the row-the-boat, over-the-top fake enthusiasm PJ Fleck shows to the media and on the recruiting trail. Reggie Corbin’s two touchdowns on 213 rush yards combined with AJ Bush’s two rushing touchdowns on 127 yards on the ground was proof that the zone-read option offense works against a slow defense. It was the best offensive performance Illini fans had seen in years. This game was about dominating a team in our Big Ten West division at home, against a really hateable coach, on a day we didn’t expect much of anything to happen.
The first 34 minutes and 24 seconds of the football game against Penn State was my favorite moment of the year. Penn State came into the week 4 matchup against Illinois a prohibitive favorite. They were a team that almost made the CFP the previous two years and were looking like a playoff contender early in the 2018 season. The Illini, on the hand, had been on the opposite end of the spectrum the last two years. But, the Illini knew they had a few pieces to work with on offense, and were eager to see what new offensive coordinator Rod Smith could with these pieces -- especially against an elite conference foe like Penn State.
For the 1st half and early into the second half, we saw what the Illini were capable of over short bursts as they ripped off 17 straight points to take a 24-21 lead over the Nittany Lions. The Illini offense looked fluid, well-paced, and wide-open. We saw players like Reggie Corbin and Ricky Smalling making plays against an elite team. More importantly, we saw what Rod Smith can design and how it can work against a Big Ten power. We, of course, want to see the Illini do what they did that night for longer and even for an entire game, but for 34 minutes and 24 seconds of gametime we saw both the concept and the proof that it can work.
As I am sure it was for many Illini fans, the greatest moment that I saw (and was fortunate enough to witness in person) was the victory against Wisconsin, sending the volleyball team to the Final Four.
Illinois split the season series with Wisconsin, and both teams were ranked in the top 10 heading into the NCAA Tournament. At Huff Hall for the Elite Eight, the Illini took the first set of the match, with the Badgers storming back for a 25-15 win in the second. That was when the Illini really turned it on. Led by Jacqueline Quade, Ali Bastianelli and Jordyn Poulter, the Illini took the third set 25-22 and thanks to a Beth Prince kill, the Illini stamped their ticket to Minneapolis with a 25-23 victory in the fourth set. What a season for those girls.
I will be the second to echo my favorite moment as the day Illinois Basketball took down Michigan State. I was fortunate enough to be able to go to that game and I don’t recall a game in the past several years where the crowd was that loud or that hyped as that game. I had previously, in multiple pieces, criticized the fans in attendance, students and non students alike, for their lack of noise throughout the season. That game changed everything for the rest of the season, and in my opinion, the next season. Illinois Basketball is coming back to relevance, albeit slower than we would like, and the Michigan State upset was just the beginning. As this was one of the few games I was able to see in person this past season, and easily the greatest sporting event I’ve ever been to, it was the icing on the cake for my fandom of sports up to this point in my life.
My favorite moment of the year was undoubtedly Illinois’s trip to the Final Four, which while it unfortunately resulted in a loss, was an incredible experience to witness and the capstone of an incredible season. Unable to take a bus up with a portion of Spike Squad, I made the drive up on my own and then drove back overnight to make it back in time for a final the next day (and blew out a tire on the way!).
While seeing Illinois volleyball playing in a sold-out Huff Hall during the postseason was amazing, witnessing them playing in a packed Target Center was surreal. The five-set match was exciting, intense and stressful for those of us in the Illinois section, and while Illinois couldn’t pull out a win, it was the most fun I’ve ever had at an Illinois sporting event.
The ability to watch an Illinois team play in the national championship semifinals was something I won’t forget, and hopefully I’ll get to witness the Illini make it to that stage a lot more often in the future.
No question for me. Blowing the doors off Minnesota was the highlight of my Illini year. I like Illini hoops, wrestling, volleyball and others, but I live and die with Fighting Illini Football and I sure have been doing a lot of dying lately.
The entirety of my adult-life twenties I wanted to have fun with Illini football, travel to away games, organize big tailgates and everything. It hasn’t panned out, and it started immediately after I graduated and moved to Michigan in 2012. Suddenly, after the Illini got spanked by Penn State, my college buddies were a lot less inclined to road trip to the game in Ann Arbor, and they were justified as we got shut out 45-0. Now I can’t even get people to go to the homecoming games with me anymore. It could have been a lot of fun to follow a good Big Ten football program during this stage of my life, but alas, we’re loyal to you, Illinois.
With Illinois coming off their second 60burger of the year, the only reason I even watched is because I only get to do this twelve times a year and most of them aren’t fun so I can’t afford to miss one just in case it is. I was well-prepared to turn it off and go outside in the event that it turned into 4 hours of commentary hyping PJ Fleck, who is somehow the most insufferable coach in a conference with Pat Fitzgerald, James Franklin and Jim Harbaugh.
They finally did it. Illinois overwhelmed their opponent and ran all the way down the field...and then they kept doing it! The defense put up a better fight than usual, but even when they yielded the offense took the field and marched right down and scored again! I couldn’t believe that in the second half the Gopher defense kept sending so much pressure as our backs raced past their overpursuing linebackers. FINALLY, after three years of waiting, I got to drop “Golden Gophers act like they forgot about Dre” on Twitter. Everything came together and it was the ILLINI who DELIVERED an unexpected beatdown for once!
This is our wheelhouse: delivering terrible losses to teams with aspirations of being good (see Nebraska 2015, PSU 2014, Northwestern 2014...Minnesota 2014!). For only the tenth time in the nearly 7 complete football seasons since my graduation, my beloved Illinois Fighting Illini had defeated a Big Ten conference opponent!
This euphoria lasted two weeks before being emphatically strangled by Iowa.
“This won’t end well for Illinois,” ESPN Color Commentator Dan Dakich said right before Ayo Dosunmu sank a trey ball in Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston’s face.
I’m a basketball guy through and through, and happy moments were few and far between in Illinois’ worst season record wise in school history. So to see the students rush the floor and the Illini knock off an eventual NCAA Tournament Semi-finalist was a sight for the sorest of eyes.
It was one of the most complete games from Illinois’ Big Three (Dosunmu, Trent Frazier, and Giorgi Bezhanishvili) who combined to score 55 of the team’s 79 points, nine rebounds, and six assists.
It was a completely different performance from the Illini than the last time they matched up against this Michigan State team at home. The Spartans were on their way to a huge win until Kipper Nichols’ poured in an unlikely 22 second-half points.
Hopefully, we see the Illini steal a few more games next season.
For my money, I thoroughly enjoyed thrashing Minnesota football at home. P.J. Fleck is one of those coaches who you hate, but are secretly envious of his success. He recruits the state of Illinois better than Illinois. He’s full of hokey catch-phrases that seep into your consciousness and won’t let go, like a viral infection. SkiUMah? Row the Boat? Effective drivel. He’s turning Minnesota around, slowly but surely, into a contender. I’ll always remember the beat down he put on Illinois in Lovie’s first year while the head coach at Western Michigan. Infuriating.
Yet, for a day anyways, Illinois mopped the floor with all of that. Reggie Corbin and AJ Bush and Dre Brown. Out-muscling up front. Total demolition. It was easily the most enjoyable win of the season for a lackluster 2018. The defense even looked semi-competent for a fleeting moment. It was a culmination of good timing and better execution. At least for a day, we got the better of the Fleckster and his inane blustery. It won’t always happen, but at least we can cherish this one.
The pickings may have been slim again this year for men’s basketball and football, but the highlight of the year for me had to Tevian Jones’ coming out party at Madison Square Garden against Maryland. I was so convinced we wouldn’t stand a chance against a team ranked in the teens at essentially their home court. As the game went on and the Illini went blow-for-blow with the Terps, I gradually went from pleasantly surprised to absolutely floored at how well the Illini played.
Many times when the Illini pull an upset, they come back after the favored team put up a big lead early and eased off the gas. That was not at all the case in this game, as Illinois lead much of the way and fought off ferocious comeback attempts by Maryland to hang onto the lead. This was the moment that helped me to buy back into the Illini after a very tough start to the season.
For vintage inspired, high quality, and well-designed University of Illinois apparel, check out Fourth and Kirby, and look for the TCR Collection while you’re at it!1