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Mike Nadel: Nothing wonderful about freebies for Illini

Mike Nadel

There's little doubt Arizona's Nic Wise tried to call a time out his team didn't have. There's little doubt he should have been assessed a technical foul. And there's little doubt Illinois still would have found a way to lose, probably by missing the free throws.

Free throws should be wonderful. I mean, they're FREE! Do you know how rare it is to get anything free in Chicago?

The city just passed a sales tax on water, for cripe's sake!

Because the Fighting Illini wouldn't accept numerous freebies Saturday -- going 10-of-22 from the foul line -- they deserved their 78-72 overtime loss to No. 22 Arizona at the United Center.

Oh, there were plenty other reasons other for the team's third defeat in five games, results that will resonate with the NCAA tournament selection committee come March.

Fans certainly will fixate on Wise's phantom time out (more on that later), but this game was lost because Illinois was hapless offensively (including at the free-throw line) when things mattered most. It was yet another down-the-stretch collapse by a team that hasn't had a go-to guy since the Deron-Dee-Luther gang dominated college basketball in 2004-05.

After blowing most of a 13-point lead but recovering to go ahead 57-51 with 5 minutes left in regulation, the Illini went 1-for-4 from the field, 2-for-4 from the line and committed six turnovers as Arizona tied it at 61. The Wildcats then controlled the overtime from the opening tip.

"It's very frustrating because it's something that happens a lot," said Shaun Pruitt, who shook off a bum ankle to score 24 points. "The Maryland game was pretty close and we died at the end. We died in the Duke game, too. And here we died to another good team ... and we definitely had them."

Much of crunch time, the ball was in the hands of Chester Frazier, who finished with six turnovers, six missed shots and zero points. The kid has heart and defensive tenacity, but he's not qualified to be a major-college lead guard.

Asked how he could address his lack of late-game playmakers, Bruce Weber provided as honest a self-evaluation as any coach could: "Get better players."

Blaming Weber for his team's free-throw woes is tougher to do. I can assure you that the Illini's 59 percent shooting this season (after only making 62 percent last year) isn't a result of the coach ignoring the problem at practice.

"We shoot anywhere from 60 to 75 (free throws by each player daily) ... and do other drills," Weber said. "And the guys that don't shoot them well have to stay after and make so many. We've changed form. We've changed routines. We've talked about relaxing. We've talked about a lot of different things. And obviously it isn't good."

Trent Meacham, the team's best shooter, missed one with 21 seconds left in regulation. Mike Tisdale, a big man with outstanding touch, bricked a pair. So did Calvin Brock. Pruitt, Brian Randle and Bill Cole each missed the front of a 1-and-1, the equivalent of six lost points.

"You're fighting your butts off ... and when you get fouled and miss them both, it's a letdown," Weber said. "That's not gonna get it (done) against a good team."

Arizona clearly was the more talented team. And as often seems to happen in sports, the better team gets more breaks.

The biggest (and surely most infamous in Illini Land's eyes) came in the closing seconds of regulation. 

After stealing the basketball from Frazier, Wise turned to referee Kevin Mathis and made the time-out sign. Meacham said he also heard Wise ask for time. Instead of assessing a technical foul, Mathis looked the other way as the orange-clad faithful howled.

"I almost (called time)," Wise said later. "That would have been one of those Chris Webber deals."

Well, this wasn't exactly the national title game and these Illini aren't exactly the 1993 North Carolina Tar Heels, but you get his point.

Kevin O'Neill, filling in for Arizona coach Lute Olson this season, had the best line: "That would have been grounds for murder."

Acting as the pool reporter after the game, I tried to talk to the refs, but I was told they had left the arena.

Great. Another Anti-Illini Conspiracy for folks to whine about.

"It's a tough call," Weber said. "I would have felt bad for the kid. I wouldn't want our kids to be in that circumstance. I know it's a rule, but we should have won the game with the free throws."

He's right, but his Fighting Illini simply don't like freebies. Have you ever heard of such a crazy thing?

Mike Nadel (mikenadel@sbcglobal.net) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.