INDIANAPOLIS — Fresh off a dominant, 90-68 win over Rutgers in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, Illinois coach Brad Underwood was overjoyed about more than just the result of the game.
The Illini, the tournament’s 2-seed, dispatched 7-seed Rutgers with ease. But for the first time all season, the team also got to play in front of some of its fans due to the Big Ten and Lucas Oil Stadium’s decision to allow up to 8,000 fans to attend the tournament each day.
“I can’t say how nice enough it was to see all the orange in the stands,” Underwood said. “Wow, did we miss them. That was pretty impressive from our fanbase, as always, I shouldn’t be surprised.”
Spread throughout a cavernous, 70,000-seat venue, the fans in attendance created a home-court advantage for the Illini, despite the game being played about 125 miles away from the State Farm Center in Champaign.
Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu and center Kofi Cockburn could be seen working the pro-Illini crowd up throughout the game. At one point after driving to the hoop, making a layup and drawing a foul, Dosunmu turned to the crowd and beckoned for it to get loud.
Dosunmu, who led all scorers with 23 points on Friday night, said the Illini were extra pumped up to finally play in front of their fans.
“It always gives you extra juice, extra adrenaline, and it just pushes you to play harder,” Dosunmu said. “Seeing the fans there, it definitely felt good. It felt like a playoff game, really.”
Fans had to abide by social distancing and masking requirements, and Lucas Oil Stadium had hand sanitizing stations spread throughout, while also asking patrons to walk only on the right side of the concourse.
Illinois sold out several home games down the stretch in the 2019-2020 season, before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancellation of the 2020 Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
After a long period of mostly losing seasons since the late 2000s, fans leapt at the opportunity to see Illinois in action. The school sold out its all-session ticket allotment shortly after they went on sale, with many other fans turning to ticketing services such as Ticketmaster and StubHub.
The Big Ten also allotted 50 tickets for Illinois students.
The Illini will resume their Big Ten tournament campaign on Saturday at roughly 2:30 p.m. when they take on Iowa.
Saturday’s crowd should be more evenly split, as there was a sizable Hawkeye contingent in the stadium on Friday night to see Iowa take on Wisconsin.
Gavin Good is a student reporter for WILL.