Peeking through the walkway leading to the United Center hallway, Sam Maniscalco had left his seat with his parents for a quick exit to beat the traffic but caught a glimpse of greatness. Michael Jordan hitting a last-second shot to win Game 1 in the NBA finals in 1997. For Maniscalco, the place is Basketball Heaven.

CHICAGO -- Peeking through the walkway leading to the United Center hallway, Sam Maniscalco had left his seat with his parents for a quick exit to beat the traffic but caught a glimpse of greatness.


Michael Jordan hitting a last-second shot to win Game 1 in the NBA finals in 1997. For Maniscalco, the place is Basketball Heaven.


"Me, my mother and brother ran through the hallway high-fiving everyone,'' said Maniscalco, who gets to play on the city's most famous court Saturday for the first time, when No. 19 Illinois hosts UNLV at the United Center.


One of eight Illini from the Chicago area who want to end a two-game losing streak in the home away from home, Maniscalco grew up on the city's northwest side. It's only a 30-minute drive to the United Center, when traffic cooperated, but it's a long path to the House that Jordan Built. He wound his way from:


-- Sitting in a car seat stuffed in the bleachers while his father, Carl, coached Maniscalco's two older brothers.


"He'd listen to all the stuff I told the other two kids,'' Carl said. "He learned by sitting there. He listened and listened when the older kids were playing. He reaped the benefits. I got better at it, and I was a lot less intense by the time I got him.''


-- The driveway of his grandmother's home, only three blocks from Sam's house in the Sauganash neighborhood. The grandkids were all boys. Eight of them. Every Sunday, they would meet at grandma's house for dinner.


"What else. That's what you do when you're Italian,'' Sam said.


The games on that driveway would go to 100 or 150 points, with eight cousins and a couple dads.


"I can remember like it was yesterday,'' Sam said.


-- Queen of Saints Grade School.


With his father as coach, Maniscalco helped his team to a 131-5 record, if you take his word for it.


"I can get you the scorebooks,'' Sam said.


He followed the same path of his father to the Chicago Catholic League. While Carl played at Gordon Tech, Sam went to St. Patrick, closer to downtown. They both eventually played at Bradley. Sam transferred to Illinois after Bradley fired coach Jim Les last spring.


Sam Maniscalco played three college games in Chicago with Bradley, two of them at Loyola -- about five miles east on Devon Avenue from his family's home -- and one at Illinois-Chicago. This time, he plays on the biggest stage in town.


"When you get between the lines, you have to block that stuff out,'' Maniscalco said. Make no mistake, this is a big deal. His family bought 50 tickets. Maybe another 50 went to friends.


After overcoming a second ankle surgery, Maniscalco quickly became a team leader on the Illini, whose roster has six freshmen and four other starters taking on a bigger role. Maniscalco is scoring more than expected, ranking third on the Illini with 12 points a game. He's made clutch shots and, at times, carried the Illini. He scored 24 to lead the Illini in a victory at Maryland.


Maniscalco's leadership comes quietly, coach Bruce Weber said.


"He had to get accepted by the guys,'' Weber said. "He really made big steps when he started playing and played well. That's when he felt more confident to grab Meyers (Leonard), 'Hey, you need to do this,' get in the huddle and say, 'We're fine. Let's get the ball here and there.'


"He wants the ball at the end of games. He's made plays. He has a good personality. He seems to get along with everybody, a lot like Chester (Frazier).''


He just one of the guys on a team that's been easy for Illini fans to like.


"There were lot of unkowns in the league, lot of unknowns with the team,'' Weber said. "All of a sudden people are, 'Oh man, what's going on here.' ''


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow me on Twitter @JohnSupinie.


*****


No. 19 Illinois (10-0) vs. UNLV (10-2)


4 p.m., United Center, Chicago (BTN, Illini Sports Network)


ILLINOIS (10-0)   ppg     rpg


F Tyler Griffey 6-8 Jr. 7.5 4.8


C Meyers Leonard 7-1 So. 13.4 7.2


G Brandon Paul 6-4 Jr. 10.6 3.9


G D.J. Richardson 6-3 Jr. 13.7 2.5


G Sam Maniscalco 6-0 Sr. 12.0 2.5


UNLV (10-2)     ppg   rpg


F Chace Stanback 6-8 Sr. 14.3 5.3


F Mike Moser 6-8 So. 14.0 12.3


C Brice Massamba 6-10 Sr. 6.0 3.7


G Oscar Bellfield 6-2 Sr. 10.8 2.5


G Anthony Marshall 6-3 Jr. 9.8 3.2


Noteworthy: Illinois is 32-10 all-time in the United Center, but the Illini have lost two straight there and four of the last five. None of the current Illini have won a game there. … Illinois defeated UNLV 73-62 in the round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament in March. … Dave Rice was hired as UNLV coach after Lon Kruger left for Oklahoma in April. … UNLV defeated then-No. 1 North Carolina 90-80 in the Las Vegas Invitational title game. UNLV lost to Wichita State (89-70) and Wisconsin (62-51). … UNLV senior guard Kendall Wallace lived in Springfield while his father, Jeff, coached at Chatham Glenwood and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin nearly 15 years ago. His grandfather Loren Wallace won 683 basketball games as coach at Quincy, Lincoln, Nokomis and Bloomington high schools


Key for Illini: Show Chicago what you got. Illinois wants to remind the city about the orange and blue.


Key for Runnin' Rebels: Put the pressure on the Illini by playing fast.


Key quote: "They will truly be the Runnin' Rebels. When they got going, you saw what they could do in the Carolina game.'' -- Illini coach Bruce Weber.


Prediction: Illinois 78, UNLV 72