FEVER: Tri-Cities, Wichita set for battle

June 29, 2012 

If you were watching the NBA Draft on Thursday night and saw Tri-Cities Fever quarterback Houston Lillard there, your eyes weren’t deceiving you.

Lillard was there to support his younger brother, Damian, who was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers sixth overall.

Now the next question is, obviously, What is Houston doing in Newark, N.J., on the eve of the Fever’s Intense Conference Championship game against the Wichita Wild, set for 7:05 p.m. today at the Toyota Center?

The answer is, How could he not go to attend one of the biggest events in his brother’s — his best friend, mind you — life.

“Damian’s agent offered to pay for Houston to come to the draft,” Fever coach Adam Shackleford said. “He’s flying back (this) morning and will be here at noon. I’m not worried.”

Lillard said he’ll be back.

“I couldn’t miss this,” Lillard said late Thursday night. “I would regret it if I didn’t. And it’s not taking away from Wichita or the Fever. This is my brother.”

Lillard spent the earlier part of this week going over the Fever’s game plan against Wichita (9-6), which defeated the Allen Wranglers 43-40 on Monday night.

If something were to happen — a flight cancellation or delay — Shackleford said he’s ready to use backup quarterback Kasey Peters.

But Shackleford is not even concerned about that: He knows Lillard will be here.

His bigger concern is the Wild, which has won nine of its last 11 games after an 0-4 start to the season.

“They won a lot of road games this year,” said Shackleford. “I don’t think being on the road scares them one bit.”

No it doesn’t, said Wild coach Morris Lolar, who put his team through practice at the Toyota Center on Thursday.

“That’s what you have to do in this league,” Lolar said.

Even when his team started out 0-4, Lolar said he wasn’t worried.

“It was just a matter of our guys getting older and maturing a bit,” he said. “We just started taking it one game at a time, one play at a time.”

So what should fans look for in tonight’s game, featuring the top-seeded Fever (13-2) against the No. 3 seed Wild?

“The Fever offense versus our defense is No. 1,” Lolar said.

Shackleford agrees.

“Their defense has won them a few games this season,” he said.

Led by IFL co-defensive player of the year Mike Moss and linebacker Rashad Washington, the Wild defensive unit has been dominating on the field.

But Tri-Cities’ offensive unit averages 53.6 points a game, fourth-best in the league.

“Obviously, our offense is one of the top units in the league,” Lillard said. “They’re an aggressive defense and fly around the field.”

Lolar doesn’t believe that any individual matchups will be factors, only units.

“So I think special teams will be big, and their defense against our offense,” he said.

Shackleford believes stopping Wichita running back Tywon Hubbard will be a key, and the Fever’s front four players (three linemen and one linebacker) will have to shut him down.

Hubbard, a rookie from Central Missouri, led the league in total yards with 1,963. Yet he wasn’t given any postseason honors — not even offensive rookie of the year.

“I guess I kind of got a huge chip on my shoulder,” Hubbard said after Thursday’s practice.

Shackleford also is wary of Wichita wide receiver Tim Simmons, last year’s top receiver in the league playing for Wenatchee Valley.

“Simmons against our secondary will be a big matchup,” Shackleford said.

Finally, watch the kicking game — Tri-Cities’ Brady Beeson and Wichita’s James Chandler.

“Both kickers are good,” Shackleford said.

Notes: The winner of this game will play in the league’s championship, the United Bowl, in two weeks against the United Conference champion. The Green Bay Blizzard (12-3) visits the Sioux Falls Storm (15-0) on Saturday for that contest. ... Storm head coach Kurtiss Riggs will sit out Saturday’s game, his second consecutive one, after being suspended by the Indoor Football League for overcompensating a player. ... As expected, Sioux Falls quarterback Chris Dixon was named the league’s MVP on Thursday. It was the second consecutive season and third time in the last four seasons he has been named MVP. He set records in pass efficiency (133.3), completion percentage (74) and passing yards (3,321). ... Green Bay’s Robert Fuller was named IFL Coach of the Year for his team’s 11-3 mark in the regular season. Fuller also won that award last season while with the Fairbanks Grizzlies.

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