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NCAA Tournament Recap (South Alabama-Illinois)
Posted: Thur March 12, 1998 at 8:59 p.m. ESTKevin Turner scored 18 points as fifth seed Illinois pulled away for a 64-51 victory over 12th seed South Alabama in the first round of the NCAA Tournament West Region at Sacramento, California. Matt Heldman added 15 points for the Fighting Illini (23-9), who will play fourth seed Maryland in Saturday's second round. Illinois has won its first-round game the last two years, but has not reached the "Sweet 16" since 1989, when it advanced to the Final Four. "I thought this was really a hard-fought basketball game," said Illini coach Lon Kruger. "South Alabama, as we expected, was very hard-nosed, and they did not give up baskets very easily." Toby Madison scored 19 points, while Rico Alderson and Jason Hamm each added 13 for South Alabama (22-10), which lost in the first round for the second straight year. As a 13th seed in last season's opening round, the Jaguars led eventual NCAA champion Arizona by 10 points with 7:31 to play before losing by eight. Playing its same deliberate style that gave Arizona fits last year, South Alabama took its last lead at 14-12 on a three-pointer by Hammm 7:26 into the game. But the Illini, who start five seniors, embarked on a 14-2 burst. Heldman started and finished the run with three-pointers that sandwiched baskets by Jerry Hester, Brian Johnson, Sergio McClain and Jarrod Gee. A basket by Turner gave Illinois a 28-18 lead with 2:25 left, but the Jaguars scored the final six points of the half to close within 28-24. A jumper by Madison pulled South Alabama into a 30-30 tie with 16:30 to play. But Hester made two free throws and Heldman buried a three-pointer to give the Illini a 35-30 advantage with 14:44 to go. Alderson had a layup before adding a free throw to make it a two-point game at the 11:59 mark. But after the official timeout, Hester and Gee hit jumpers around a missed three-pointer by Madison. Madison did pull the Jaguars within 39-35 on a jumper, but Gee made two free throws, and McClain had a steal which led to a layup for Heldman that made it 43-35 at the 8:21 mark. South Alabama would get no closer than seven the rest of the way. "In the first half, Rico was taking advantage of opportunities that he had, because we weren't getting very good defensive position in the post," admitted Gee. "We talked about it at halftime and also in the second half, and we came out rock solid. We worked together as a group to handle the situation." Illinois, which did not attempt a free throw in the first half, made 21-of-28 in the final 20 minutes. The Illini shot 46 percent (19-of-41) from the floor to overcome a 32-16 rebounding deficit. "We can't afford to get away with that very often," admitted Kruger about the rebounding differential. "I thought they were a quick team, and they were active to the boards, but we have to do a better job on the boards if we're going to survive for any length of tournament play." The Jaguars, who made just five free throws, shot 47 percent (21-of-45) from the field but made only 4-of-15 from three-point range. South Alabama led the Sun Belt Conference in three-point shooting at 40.5 percent.
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