Illinois was fired up early, limiting UC Irvine to 23% first half shooting in building a big lead. Brandon Paul got hot from three, hitting his first five shots to put the Anteaters in a deep hole. Constant substitutions by the Illini limited continuity at times, but the Illini held a commanding 42-18 advantage at halftime.
The Illini had not played well in two exhibition games. Perhaps that got their attention as they began the game with great intensity and focus. Illini coach Bruce Weber praised the first half defense.
"I thought the first half, especially defensively it was what we envisioned. We had energy, we were everywhere, we were in position, we were getting deflections. I thought we had them a little bit frozen, stifled the first half. We were ready to play."
But a common problem the last couple years is the tendency to relax with a big lead. Weber said the warmups prior to the second half were a bad omen for what was to come.
"The second half we had a bad warmup, and the coaches were not happy about it. It reflected how we played."
Illini point guard Demetri McCamey described what happened second half.
"We got a little bit nonchalant, tentative and not being aggressive. We let them bring the game to us. So that's something we've got to get better. We did that last year, so we've got to pick that up fast."
McCamey said the team is pleased with the outcome but not overjoyed.
"We feel good, but at the same time it's something that we expect. So we're not gonna go out and tear down Green Street because we beat them. We look at it like a positive thing. The first half was a good start to the season; we've got to keep that up and carry it over to the second half."
Brandon Paul was the first half star for the Illini. He hit five threes without a miss to excite the fans and motivate the team. Each of his five shots were taken as part of the offense. When the 'Eaters came out to guard him, he penetrated and dished to Tyler Griffey for a short jumper. Paul also had a steal and block in the first half."
While Weber still wants Paul to show his midrange game more frequently, he saw a glimpse of future possibilities.
"I loved that when he hit three in a row, his fourth one he made a shot fake, got in the lane and dished it to Tyler (Griffey) for a layup. I think that shows some strides and maturity that he's made."
Paul shot threes well the first couple games last year before going an opposite direction. He sees definite similarities but is working to prevent a later downfall.
"It felt like deja vu for me. This year, the main thing for me is just to stay consistent. I don't want to have two good games and then be off the next few games.
McCamey started slowly. He missed an early heat check in each half and seemed bothered by his continued slump. But he finally put things together midway in the second half to prevent UC Irvine from staging a successful comeback.
McCamey ended with 13 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three steals. He turned the ball over five times but was more secure with it when needed most. Plus, he played good defense first half according to Weber.
"Demetri played today like he did the last couple practices. Demetri's got to play well. He wasn't perfect by any means, but he made some strides. First half might have been the best Demetri's played defensively. He got tired second half. I wish I wouldn't have got him the 31 minutes."
Paul led the Illini with 18 points, all from three point range. He added two assists, two steals and two rebounds. Mike Tisdale scored 12 points and pulled down 8 rebounds including four on the offensive end. Mike Davis scored 11 points, grabbed 8 rebounds and hounded Anteater star Eric Wise, holding him to 11 points.
D.J. Richardson was cold from the three point line but still scored 8 points. Jereme Richmond scored his first six Illini points and grabbed four rebounds in 17 minutes of action. Bill Cole grabbed five boards and dished out three assists to go with his four points.
The Illini showed definite improvement from the exhibition season. For a half, they were outstanding. Now they must make more strides according to Weber.
"One of our goals is controlling home court. Learning to be intimidating. We were intimidating on defense in the first half. We were all over the place. Now you've got to do that against the better teams, you've got to do it for extended periods. We couldn't get 2-3 shutouts in a row second half.
"So it was a good lesson for us. Hopefully next time we have the opportunity to be up 20 something at half, that we can do a better job of coming out and dominating the first five minutes and put teams away.
"You've got to be cut in. That's where the older guys have to say, 'It's not over. We've got to play.' If we're gonna make strides, I think that's one thing we could do."
Anteater coach Russell Turner saw plenty he liked about the Illini.
"Illinois is good. I knew that coming into this game. I thought they were really terrific defensively, especially in the first half. I give them credit. Their length is gonna bother a lot of people, and it sure bothered us. I was impressed with their level of play.
"I though our zone would cause them problems, but one guy shot us out of it by himself. So credit him. I thought the Illinois guys did a great job of moving the ball until it got to him and played really unselfishly against that zone to make that happen."
The Illini have minimal time to prepare for Wednesday foe Toledo in the next round of the Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer.