CHAMPAIGN, Ill. • In one breath, Anthony Evans claimed that he hasn’t watched the game film that represents his greatest achievement in basketball.
In the next, he adjusted, saying he has replayed his March Madness miracle one time at home. But even that came with a disclaimer: “I think.” We may never know how many times Evans has slipped away to re-live his biggest moment.
But the Norfolk State coach is never too far removed from the stunning NCAA Tournament win over Mizzou that saw the 15th-seeded Spartans shock the No. 2 Tigers nine months ago.
The reminders are everywhere on the Norfolk, Va., campus in the form of mentions by students and the impact on the university, mainly an increase in enrollment.
“From the notoriety we received to having the opportunity to go to the ESPYs, it’s been great for the program, the players and even the school as a whole,” Evans said as his team awaited Tuesday night’s meeting with No. 10 Illinois. “It was a big win, a huge part of history and it’s done a lot for our program.”
In search of another program-altering win – this time on the road – the Spartans refused to back down from the Illini in much the same way they hung with Mizzou that afternoon. This time, however, they fell 64-54.
The Illini built a 10-point lead early in the second half before the Spartans clawed to within one possession in the closing minutes. But the relatively inexperienced team lacked go-to players that were present last season.
Thus, Illinois improved to 11-0 for the first time since 2005-06. The Illini have only a home game against unbeaten Eastern Kentucky (9-0) before facing Mizzou in the Braggin’ Rights game Dec. 22 at Scottrade Center.
“We feel fortunate to have won the game,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “I didn’t feel we played particularly well, but we did enough to win. I didn’t think over the course of 40 minutes our energy level and focus were where they’ve been.”
Norfolk State dropped to 6-6. But it’s not much different than last year, when the Spartans stood at 7-5 last season before finishing 26-10.
The Spartans have undergone significant personnel changes, losing four starters who combined for 66 points in the 86-84 win in Omaha. The most notable loss was Kyle O’Quinn, who riddled Mizzou for 26 points and 14 rebounds and was selected in the second round of the NBA draft by Orlando.
The only starter who returned was guard Pendarvis Williams, who tallied 20 points against Mizzou. He scored 11 in the first half against Illinois to keep the Spartans within striking distance at 32-29 at the break.
Evans has seen strides in recruiting since receiving a brief but significant amount of publicity from the tourney win and an ESPY nomination for the year’s biggest upset. He snagged a transfer from Fresno State that he attributed to the win, and received interest from several recruits, he said, because of the tournament success.
“Kyle O’Quinn is a guy nobody knew about but came to our school, developed and had an opportunity to go to the NBA,” Evans said. “Kids see that, and they want to be a part of it. They see an opportunity at our level to be successful and possibly be a pro.”
Norfolk State’s 15 minutes of tournament fame ended quickly when Florida drubbed the Spartans by 34 points two days after their upset. Although the Spartans appeared completely unprepared for the Gators, Evans said he felt good about the match-up with Mizzou from the moment it was announced.
“I thought it was a great match-up,” he said. “We had played Marquette twice, and they were similar in style of play. I thought Marquette was more physical in how they played defense. Mizzou was more finesse defensively, and I thought we could take advantage of that size and rebounding wise.”
Before facing Illinois, the Spartans had built a four-game win streak. Their best win came in the season opener at Rhode Island.
Illinois guard D.J. Richardson made sure they didn’t pick up another landmark win. The Illini went cold in the closing 10 minutes, but Richardson scored seven consecutive Illinois points to keep Norfolk State from assuming the lead.
Illinois entered the game leading the country with an average of nearly 11 3-pointers per game but made only six of 23 and shot 35 percent overall.