Illinois gave its fans plenty to enjoy Wednesday. It played outstanding team ball, making the extra pass to find an open shooter. And it was dominant on defense, limiting everything Toledo tried to do. It played the way Bruce Weber wanted.
"I think the biggest thing I'm excited about is we did what we're supposed to do," Weber noted. "And we did it in the right way. We did it with great energy. The guys were having fun."
Weber was quick to point out the tribulations Todd Kowalczyk is having after being hired at Toledo late in the process and having to put a team together almost from scratch. Kowalcyzk praised the Illini while providing details of his team's problems.
"Obviously we were completely overmatched at every position. We knew coming in how talented as Illinois was. When they came out and made as many shots as they did early, when they came at us with ball pressure we got back on our heels. We got quiet and didn't compete.
"This is a team and a program that's in a rebuilding stage. Give credit to Illinois's ball pressure and their athleticism. It took its toll on us. When you've got five scholarship players and four walkons, and one walkon is a freshman starting for you, and you're playing against the 16th ranked team in the country, you know you're overmatched a little bit."
Weber made a point at halftime to keep the team focused and driven deep into the second stanza.
"Our whole message was, can we extend it? We won the last five minute war in the first half and the first five minute war of the second half."
The Illini got the message. They had a 29 point lead at the half and extended it to 40 at 63-23 with 12 and a half minutes remaining in the game. Unlike the UC Irvine game Monday, the Illini didn't let up on the throttle. They were still shooting 60% at that point as the Rockets offered minimal resistance.
Senior point guard Demetri McCamey led the early assault. He said he came in extra to work on his shot, and it paid off as he hit 4-5 in the first half. He scored 11 of his 13 points before the break and added 6 of his 7 assists. He then helped his team continue the onslaught second half.
"That's what we talked about at halftime," McCamey remembered. "As seniors we've got to set the tone and not give up a lot of points after halftime. We treated it as 0-0 and kept fighting and getting turnovers."
Eleven players scored for the Illini including walkon Kevin Berardini, who scored his first four college points. McCamey added 7 assists to his team leading point total in just 18 minutes of action. Mike Davis scored 12 points, while Mike Tisdale put in 10 points and fought for 8 rebounds in 15 minutes. Four of his boards were on the offensive end.
Meyers Leonard also scored ten points in the victory, and he pulled down 6 rebounds. He admitted getting tired, but his 22 minutes allowed him to become comfortable in his role.
"Yeah, definitely. In the first couple games, I was in just a few minutes. I finally got in a rhythm second half. I was going to my jump hook, which I've been working on. I thought I did a lot better job tonight."
Leonard is just glad to be a part of a team and school he loves.
"It feels amazing playing with these guys. Just to put on this jersey and perform for this university is a great feeling."
Brandon Paul continued his fine play, netting 8 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 5 steals. He and Bill Cole tied for tops on the Matto play-hard chart. Freshman Jereme Richmond also added 8 points to go with four rebounds and three assists. Tyler Griffey had six points, Cole added five, as did redshirt freshman Joseph Bertrand.
For Bertrand, those were his first college points. He is still a nervous colt on the court, but he did something few other Illini are comfortable doing. He slashed to the basket for layups and passes to set up teammates. If he can continue to play aggressively, he will enhance his playing status.
Crandall Head did not play. In a game where he could have gained valuable experience, he was forced to sit by Weber edict.
"Crandall didn't take care of his business. It gave some other guys more opportunities."
The Illini hit 57.8% from the field for the game. Even though they hit their first five threes, they tailed off to 27.8% accuracy by the end. Toledo managed just 35.6% shooting for the game.
McCamey reminds that Saturday night foe Southern Illinois will be a much tougher opponent. And he knows Weber, who coached at SIU before being hired at Illinois, takes the game seriously.
"He really wants this game. This is a game for us to win, and we have to treat it as a championship game and get our season going in the right direction."
Weber would rather not play the game, but he has no choice. He still has plenty of ties to the school. Of course, he wants to beat them now.
"They're gonna play their butts off. They guard, they have a big guy around the hoop, they have some energy guys. This is Bradley last year. This is Utah. We can't look forward to New York. We have to take care of business Saturday."