When the last shots slid through the nets, the Illini’s last blistering rally of the season subsided, and Sean May ultimately collapsed on the floor a national champion in St. Louis Monday night, the Champaign-Urbana campus back home straddled Wright Street with its own climactic test.
Bubbling anger and resentment for powder blue were never enough to ruin the night in the end though, despite anxious moments of confrontation between the crowd and police, who maintained a tender balance of celebration and destructive anger for the next several hours.
When the sea of orange shirts spilled out of the bars onto Green Street and 6th Street at 10:30 p.m., the readied police threw down beach balls from their perches upon the buildings at the four corners of the intersection. With roadblocks up and the traffic lanes handed over to a massive leviathan of students, the night appeared (much like the game tied at 70-70) as if it could go either way-necessitating police intervention and riot control measures like those seen over the weekend in East Lansing, Mich., or looking past the national title Bruce Weber’s team had been denied, and reveling in the best NCAA Tournament showing ever achieved by a University of Illinois basketball squad.
The head of the demonstration sprouted up at the Alma Mater, where about 20 students ignored the white, newly-affixed warning signs and began shrouding the words as they scaled the monument, focusing their booming chants against the University of North Carolina and May, the Tarheels’ leading scorer. The junior uprooted the Illini’s prized defense and was nearly unstoppable in the paint. Combined with a lackluster offensive effort around the perimeter in the first half for Illinois, bringing a net home from the game just was not in the cards for the Clockwork Orange.
A few stray fireworks erupted behind the statue as more and more students climbed on top of its arms and each other. Some fell, as did would be crowd surfers around them, and the fate of the entire night seemed to hinge on the mass’s own ability to pacify its own violent urges, as a North Carolina jersey went up in flames and an even bigger crowd began congregating to the south around a drum circle on the quad.
Like the beach balls that channeled the crowd’s physical strife into a rousing communal game in the streets, the drums in front of Foellinger Auditorium sparked congo lines and dance circles. The same drum circle, comprised of performers from Allen Hall, was forced to disband Saturday night after the Illini’s semifinal win over Louisville.
“They brought out a bass drum and then were told to leave by police because it was making their job harder for them,” stated Andrew Reder, one of the returning drummers. “There actually appears to be less people now, so they’re not being bothered.”
Compared to the student presence that engulfed the quad two nights earlier, the remaining throng at 11:00 p.m. seemed dwarfed. Scattered incidents trickled into the mix in the background with bottle rockets launching from the sidewalks and a few small fires igniting, mainly in the concrete trashcans around the quad. All were extinguished almost immediately by police officers or conscientious passers by. Other cans were left toppled and at least one shattered. By the time wary police intervened to put out one fire near the center of the quad at 11:50 p.m., the drum circle and its ensuing dance lines had begun to migrate northward.
Settling by the English Building by 12:15 a.m., the dancers in the middle of the group became as much a spectacle as the drummers, and the crowds in front of Foellinger and the Alma Mater were all but dispersed-the vivid white warning signs at statue’s base now legible and in plain view. One participant hoisted a pet boa, which was passed around like the crowd surfers from earlier on.
When the last of the campus celebration fittingly wound back once again to the Alma Mater at 12:30 a.m., catastrophe and rampant vandalism was safely averted as a possibility. Though cries against North Carolina persisted in the meandering chants amid the drums, what had looked like a potential riot now more closely resembled a modestly proposed protest against the social issue of the week.
The circle shed most of its followers by the time it headed off down Green to conclude the night. And in the end, the University of Illinois had a lot to be proud of. Photographers from local and regional newspapers still waiting behind for any sign of a story left in the night caught a side of the student body that typically only shows up for political demonstrations. Bruce Weber, Dee Brown and the rest of the centennial anniversary Illinois basketball team earned every one of the record 37 wins right up to their second place finish, and the student body back home had their night to commemorate the season in spectacular fashion.