The 1988-89 Illini Basketball Team
The 1988-89 Fighting Illini Basketball Team is one of the most talented basketball teams ever assembled. One of the critical aspects of the team was legendary head coach Lou Henson’s ability to recruit players from the Chicagoland area. Four of its five starters were from Chicago or a surrounding suburb. Affectionately called “The Flyin’ Illini,” five players from the team saw time on NBA rosters. The Illini won its first 16 games of the season before an injury to All-American Kendall Gill would sideline him for 12 games. Illinois lost three of its first four games without Gill but rebounded to finish second in the Big Ten with a 14Key4 record and were the number one seed in the Midwest Region.
The Illini ran through the NCAA tournament until its Elite Eight matchup against Syracuse. The Illini overcame 17 points and 10 rebounds from Derrick Coleman and 22 points from Billy Owens to edge the Orange 89-86. Kenny Battle’s 28 points led Illinois in scoring, and Nick Anderson scored 24 to push the Illini toward the win.
Unfortunately, the Illini could not defeat Michigan a third time and fell short in the National Semifinal 83-81. Kenny Battle was spectacular again, scoring 29 points, but Wolverines star Glen Rice scored 28 points to lead Michigan. Despite falling short of the National Championship, the 88-89 Illini will go down as one of the best teams ever assembled.
Kendal Gill: Possibly the most talented member of the “Flyin’ Illini,” Gill was the third team member from Chicago. After leading Rich Central High School to the state title game, Gill took those talents to Champaign. Gill was a three-year starter for the Illini and was third in scoring in 88-89. When a player the caliber of Gill is your third option, you have a pretty talented team.
Kenny Battle: Battle began his career at Northern Illinois before transferring to the Huskies. Another Chicago area product, he averaged 19.9 points a game for the Huskies. Battle was a captain on the 88-89 squad, averaging 16.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game. He would set the single-season record for steals with 89. Battle saved his best for Michigan, averaging 21 points against the Wolverines in their three games.
Nick Anderson: Anderson, a Chicago High School Product, was highly decorated coming out of Simeon Career Academy. He was Illinois’ “Mr. Basketball” in 1986 and a USA Today All-American before playing for Lou Henson and the Illini. As a result, he was one of the reasons the 88-89 team was so hard to defeat. Anderson averaged 18 points, 7.9 rebounds, and shot .538 from the field that year. As a result, Anderson would be named All-Big Ten and All-Region during March Madness.
12/19 v. #10 Missouri: The game dubbed “Braggin’ Rights” was the first time both teams were ranked since the game’s inception in 1980. Although the game was considered a neutral site, it was virtually a home game for the Tigers since it was played in St. Louis. Missouri took a seven-point lead into the locker room. The Illini outscored Missouri 55-45 on its way to an 87-84 win. Kenny Battle paced the Illini with 28 points, while Bryon Irvin led Mizzou with 26.
1/19 v. Northwestern: Illinois struggled against a scrappy Northwestern team for two reasons. First, they put the boots to rival Michigan in Champaign. Second, they hosted Dennis Scott, Tom Hammonds, and Georgia Tech the week after they traveled to Evanston. Another 20-point performance and a double-double from Steven Bardo (12 points, 12 rebounds) helped Illinois survive at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
3/5 v. #3 Indiana: There is little doubt that the Hoosiers had this game circled. Illinois handily defeated Indiana 75-6 in January. Though Indiana had the conference title wrapped up by this game, they wouldn’t let the Illini come to Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, and dominate. Nick Anderson paced the Illini with 23 points, leading Illinois to the road win.
The NCAA Tournament
Elite Eight v. Syracuse: After running roughshod through the first three rounds of the tournament, the Syracuse Orange gave the Illini all they could hand. All-American Billy Owens led the Orange with 22 points. Kenny Battle and Nick Anderson combined for 52 points, and Anderson had 16 rebounds (9 offensive) as the Illini out-rebounded the Orange 38-29.
Final Four v. Michigan: Nick Anderson had been one of the Illini’s most reliable rebounders all season. However, he did not clear out Sean Higgins when Terry Mills shot and missed a three-pointer. Higgins scored 14 points in the game, none more critical than the putback of Mills’ missed three with four seconds left. There were 33 lead changes in the game; the last lead change proved the most important.
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