Houston Lillard woke up Friday morning in New York City.
He finished the day celebrating a 51-30 Tri-Cities Fever victory over the visiting Wichita Wild in the Indoor Football League’s Intense Conference Championship at the Toyota Center.
“I got a little tired out there,” said the Fever quarterback, who was at the NBA Draft on Thursday night to support his brother Damian, who was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers.
Lillard will have plenty of time to rest until the IFL championship — the United Bowl — is played, either July 14 or 16, depending on who plays host.
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If visiting Green Bay can upset Sioux Falls tonight in the United Conference Championship, the Fever would host the title game on Monday, July 16. If the Storm wins, it’ll be a rematch between Sioux Falls and Tri-Cities on Saturday, July 14 in South Dakota.
One thing’s for sure: The Fever punched its ticket to the title game with Friday’s victory, making it a second straight trip for the franchise to the championship.
That’s why Friday’s victory featured a low-key celebration.
“I pulled last year’s veterans aside,” said Fever receiver Steven Whitehead. “And I said ‘Just like last year, if we win this game tonight it is not anything to celebrate.' We’re looking forward to the championship game.”
It was Whitehead who helped give Tri-Cities the lead for good early in the second quarter.
The two teams had traded touchdowns in the first quarter, and the contest was knotted at 14-14.
With the Wild stuck deep in its own territory, kicker James Chandler — whose 54-yard field goal on Monday gave Wichita a 43-40 win over Allen — was sent out to try a 60-yard field goal.
It wasn’t out of the question. Chandler had kicked a 62-yarder earlier this season.
Whitehead was back deep just in case the kick was short.
“Lionell (Singleton) is usually back deep on those, but I told Lionell to let me have this one,” said Whitehead.
Chandler’s kick was just short, and Whitehead caught the ball seven yards deep in the end zone. He ran to his right, picked up a block, cut back to his left, and saw a wall.
“I could see things develop,” he said. “I picked up some big blocks by Marquise Liverpool, Lionell and Jake Killeen.”
And 57 yards later, Whitehead scored to give the Fever a 21-14 lead, a lead it would never relinquish again.
On the ensuing series, Wichita had a 4th-and-1 at the Fever 3.
But when Wild quarterback Marcus Jackson handed the ball off to big load Callahan Bright, a Refridgerator Perry-type, Fever linebacker Boris Lee burst through and cut him down at the knees.
“We studied all week on them in film,” said Lee, who finished with a team-high 10 tackles. “I saw (Bright) get the handoff and took the blitz.”
With a turnover on downs, Lillard came back out and moved the ball down the field.
“Their defense was real vanilla,” said the QB, who had 141 yards passing and two TD passes. “I was taking advantage of what I saw.”
Wichita coach Morris Loller said it was a matter of preparation time for the Wild.
“We played as straight up as we could on defense,” said Loller. “We didn’t get a chance to mix things up. We played as well as we could. I would have liked to have more time to prepare.”
Lillard was workman-like on the drive, moving the offensive unit 47 yards on 10 plays, using almost 5 minutes of clock up with the drive culminating in a 1-yard Dennis Kennedy touchdown run.
Chandler and Fever kicker Brady Beeson traded field goals to finish the first-half scoring — Beeson’s coming on a 40-yarder as time expired for a 31-17 halftime lead.
“Last week was a little shaky for me,” said Beeson, who finished with three field goals. “I really wanted to do well. I trusted my leg swing more.”
Fever coach Adam Shackleford felt comfortable at that point.
“A 14-point lead with our defense is pretty tough to overcome,” said Shackleford. “Especially for a team that has to run the football to be successful.”
Wichita just could not move the football. The Wild finished with just 92 yards of offense on 43 plays. Running back Tywon Hubbard had just 8 yards rushing on 11 carries.
“Our job was to stop Hubbard and their quarterback (Jackson),” said Fever linebacker Frantz Joseph. “It comes down to a great game plan by the coaches.”
And now, it’s on to the finals, something veterans like Fever receiver Tre Young came back to the team this season to do.
“This game means a lot for the first-year guys,” said Young. “But we’ve got bigger things to do.”
And Friday night, it meant Lillard couldn’t get any sleep just yet.
“I can’t now,” he said. “We have to go celebrate for a little bit. I’ll sleep later.”