Bruce Weber didn't want to play the game, but at least he can rest knowing he was able to defeat his former team. Illinois continued the quality play that began with the Toledo tilt Wednesday evening, playing 40 minutes of intense defense and running its transition game to perfection.
"It's an emotional game for myself and my staff," Weber reminded afterward. "The kids responded. At the beginning of the game, both teams went at it. We hit nine of our first 13 shots. They made some tough ones, and we told our guys to keep guarding the way they did. I think our depth wore them down."
Demetri McCamey had his best game of the young season with 18 points on 7 for 10 shooting from the field, 9 assists and three rebounds. He led a devastating fast break attack that overwhelmed the Salukis. And he hustled enough defensively to ask out for a breather at times.
Saluki coach Chris Lowery left no doubt as to who was the Illini's best player this evening.
"They're long and athletic, but Demetri stirs the pot. Without him, those guys don't get baskets. He knows where they need to get. He won't throw it to them in the wrong spot. It's very good when you have a point guard who understands where your own guys need to be."
"If Demetri plays, we've got a chance to be pretty good. He's pushing the basketball, nine assists with just one turnover. He made shots. And the best thing is we've been able to rest him when he gets tired. Brandon (Paul) is starting to handle the ball and get us into things, so there's not as much drop off (as last year)."
D.J. Richardson added 16 points on 6 for 9 shooting. His four first half threes put a dagger into the heart of the Salukis, and they never recovered. Lowery lauded the entire Illini team but gave special praise to Richardson.
"This is a very good team. This is a team that is gonna win a lot of basketball games. They have some run-and-jumpers, they're organized, and then you have an assassin like D.J. whose the toughest guy on the team and the most consistent. He makes plays."
Lowery says the Illini are better defensively than last year, and Richardson was singled out again.
"They're much better. They're really locked in. It starts with D.J. because he guards the point guard and really gets after him."
Richardson preferred to praise the entire team. He says the key to the team's success is it's togetherness and common purpose.
"I think it's way different than last year. We have a better chemistry on and off the court. Everyone has that winning mentality. Everybody on the team wants to get better."
Weber provided examples of that chemistry. His comments reminded of similar statements he made during the classic 2004-05 season.
"Overall, we're playing team basketball. We're moving the basketball, making the extra pass, playing hard, being in the right position. We're playing team defense.
"I loved our transition. Mike Davis got some runouts, we got some dunks, we moved the ball and got it to the open man."
Transition was the first thing Lowery noted afterward.
"We knew how good they were. In transition, they're like the Lakers. They're as good as anybody at getting up and down the floor. Especially when Demetri's at the one, he's able to push and play free and loose with the basketball."
It was a close 22-20 game when the Illini finally began to pull away. The Illini scored 8 straight points, sandwiching a Jereme Richmond fast break bucket off a Richardson feed between two Richardson threes. It was 41-30 Illinois at the half.
Weber has been preaching winning the war the first five minutes of the second half, and the Illini responded. They went on a 19-4 run to jump out to a 60-34 lead. McCamey had 7 points and four assists during that flurry. The Illini continued to pour it on, the lead extending to 30 points at 72-42 until deep substitutions allowed SIU some breathing room.
McCamey said he just followed Weber's directives to start the second stanza.
"Coach Weber told us at halftime we were playing too fast. I think we had a lot of emotion and tried to make the home run play instead of letting the game come to us. We did a much better job second half of cutting and screening and getting everybody going."
Weber was like a proud papa talking about the Illini's ability not to let up on the throttle with the lead.
"One thing we weren't very good about last year was extending leads, playing with leads. I thought the end of the first half, beginning of the second half we were really making some progress. Having some pride in putting a team away.
"We had a saying all summer about taking no prisoners. Work hard and don't surrender. When you do have a lead, take no prisoners. You just keep playing. I think we're getting to that point."
Of course, playing that hard requires exceptional energy. Weber is also pleased that his players are working hard enough to seek rest at times.
"They're playing so hard they're taking themselves out. We might not have had more than 3 or 4 guys all last year that took themselves out. It's a different level of intensity, and it paid off. Now we've got to see if we can do it away from home against some top teams."
Davis also reached double figures with 14 points. He added seven boards and a block. Brandon Paul scored 9 and continued demonstrating his versatility and improved all-around game. He handed out 4 assists and got a block and steal.
Mike Tisdale played only 20 minutes. He pulled down 7 rebounds to go with 6 points, three assists and 3 blocks. Jereme Richmond added six points, while Meyers Leonard, Tyler Griffey and Crandall Head scored four each.
For the game, the Illini shot 55.2% from the floor despite a lapse late. They held the Salukis to 37.5% even though SIU was shooting nearly 60% the first ten minutes of the game. The Illini won the battle of the boards by two.
The Illini must now play a much tougher foe in Texas in the semifinal round of the 2K Sports Classic Benefitting Coaches vs. Cancer in New York. Davis is looking forward to the opportunity and challenge.
"It's a national stage. Everybody will be watching on ESPN. It's the first time everybody's seeing us. We want to play in New York against two top 25 teams. If we play like the last two games, we'll be all right."