I remember the exact moment that my Illinois Basketball fandom really hit me. On a March day in 2004, my science teacher — an outspoken IU grad — walked over to the window of my civics class. He breathed on the glass, fogging it up, and he wrote something I’ll never forget.
Illinois 71, Indiana 59.
The No. 1 seed Fighting Illini had defeated Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. For some reason, in that moment, Illinois Basketball felt larger than life. Ultimately, the 2003-04 squad would go on to lose in the Sweet 16 to a Duke team with J.J. Redick, Luol Deng, Shelden Williams, and Chris Duhon.
By the time the 2004-05 season came around, I was hooked. I remember the Wake Forest game. Of course I remember the Arizona game, Bill Murray pulling out what hair he had left after Deron’s game-tying three. But I also remember the Ohio State game.
My mom had asked me to take out the garbage at halftime of the OSU game, and I managed to avoid it for the entire second half. She reminded me with a few minutes left to go. Then, Matt Sylvester drained a three to put OSU up 65-64 with five seconds left, and Roger Powell missed the winning shot. Matt Sylvester. An absolute nobody who never shot more than 32.5% on 3PTs, and never had more than 8.0 PPG, had just given Illinois its first loss. On the last day of the regular season. 29-1.
I was dumbfounded. Mouth agape. In my moment of despair, my mom told me for the last time to take the trash out. I yelled at her, and she grounded me. I’ve remembered that stupid Matt Sylvester shot for the last sixteen years.
Illinois’ win over Ohio State on Saturday will never erase Matt Sylvester from my brain. He’s there forever, along with Illinois 71, Indiana 59. But in a way, it makes up for it. We needed the win more this time anyway.
What can I say about this game? Curbelo was brilliant again. Ayo looked like a folk hero in his mask. The Illini didn’t play as well as the stat sheet suggests, but Trent and Da’Monte made threes when they needed to, and Ayo iced it with the three-point conversion.
I don’t know if Illinois will win the Big Ten Tournament, and I don’t know if they’ll win the National Championship. But I do know that the 2020-21 Illini have now done at least one thing that the 2004-05 could not: beat Ohio State in the last game of the regular season.
Over the next month, we’ll find out if this team can do the one other thing that Dee, Deron, Luther, and James couldn’t.
Here’s to you, Matt Sylvester, wherever you are.