Illinois built a 12 point lead in the middle of the second half and held on to defeat a tough, resilient Maryland squad. The win eased concerns about repeating last year's failures in the Las Vegas Tournament according to head coach Bruce Weber.
"The biggest thing is we got mentally prepared and played with enthusiasm. Last year we lost to Utah in Las Vegas, a very disappointing result, and we didn't get ready for Bradley.
"Maryland is probably middle of the pack ACC, but they're gonna come at you, and that's how they kept playing. They battled and battled against Pittsburgh last night. So obviously the win is huge."
The Illini held the lead most of the game. They extended a four point halftime lead to 12 at 69-57 on two Demetri McCamey free throws. But the Terrapins battled back to make a game of it. Four straight missed free throws, two each by Bill Cole and D.J. Richardson, made the final moments nerve-wracking.
"The free throws," Weber lamented. "We missed four in a row. D.J. is probably your best, the guy you want there. But we won."
Weber planned to play more of his bench anyway, but he was forced into it by early foul trouble. Fortunately, the bench contributed 33 big points to the victory.
"Obviously the bench was huge. They had foul trouble, but we had major foul trouble with Demetri and Mike Tisdale, and Brandon (Paul) had three in the first half. We did a nice job with Tyler (Griffey), Crandall (Head), Jereme (Richmond). Meyers (Leonard) didn't play a lot of minutes, but he had a couple of nice plays."
The Illini played with more bounce and enthusiasm Friday than against Texas Thursday. The defense was getting hands into passing lanes, and there were 22 assists for 22 baskets, a big improvement over the Texas game according to Weber.
"Last night I think we got carried away in the moment, the crowd, the excitement. We shot too many threes. Tonight we shot a lot of threes, but they were wide open threes. You have to take what they give you.
"We did a good job on ball screens and were able to pick them off. Tyler was able to get a couple down, Demetri got some down, and D.J. got some he didn't get last night. That was important. Taking care of the ball, making the extra pass, hitting the right person."
Weber encourages his players to shoot threes if they come within the flow of the offense and are not forced. It worked on this night as the Illini hit 10 of 21 attempts. But in the long run, the Illini can't rely on threes to win big games. Of course, it would help to keep Tisdale in the game. He fouled out for the second game in a row.
"I thought we went to Tisdale early, but then he didn't get to play much. There were a couple calls you have to wonder. We've got to learn to get the ball to the paint."
Both McCamey and Paul sat part of the first half in foul trouble. That left freshman Crandall Head to run the offense. The normally mercurial guard played intelligent ball, slowing up to allow his teammates to set up for good shots. Weber was pleased with his effort.
"You know he's gonna do something. He had three assists, no turnovers. That was important. He's got to learn when to go and when not to. He's struggled with how to play basketball at this level when every play counts.
"He had his worst practice ever just before we left. I told him, 'You'll be fine, but you've got to learn to trust us.' He has a good attitude and had a chance. Now we feel good about it, so we'll give him another chance."
McCamey was the unquestioned star, scoring 20 points and handing out 7 assists. Paul was the only other Illini in double figures, scoring all 12 of his points in the second half. Richardson and Griffey each scored nine, and Richmond added 8.
Tisdale scored 8 and grabbed 4 rebounds in 17 minutes of action. Mike Davis scored 7 but struggled again from the field. Leonard had two thunder dunks, and Bill Cole hit a big three.
Maryland had five players in double figures, led by center Jordan Williams with 15 points and 13 rebounds and Terrell Stoglin with 17. The Illini outshot them 47% to 43%, just enough to counter 9 missed Illini free throws.
Weber would have preferred two wins on the trip, but defeating a good Maryland team provides an important stepping stone for some rugged games ahead. He was able to find out some things about his team, and now they must work on making needed improvements.
"The biggest thing is to get better in practice. That's what they've got to realize. It's a long season, and we have to keep improving. If we don't improve, other teams are gonna go by you.
"It was a good win for us. I think we learned something."