Illinois coach Bruce Weber was worried about a small gym filled with ravenous Bronco fans intimidating his Illini team. But the Illini Nation came to the rescue. With students away on Thanksgiving break, a large contingent of Illini fans helped neutralize the Western Michigan advantage.
"You go on the road for the first time, a true road game in a different environment," Weber reminds. "We had great fan support. It was amazing how much orange there was."
With that support, the Illini played a nearly flawless first half. Strong defense and excellent teamwork on the offensive end helped the Illini bury the Broncos early. The final 0.9 seconds of the first half epitomized their effort. Demetri McCamey lobbed the inbounds pass to Mike Tisdale, who laid it in to give the Illini a 49-24 halftime lead.
Weber bubbled over about his team's first half play.
"We talked about having a good focus. We were very focused and got off to a good start. I thought in the first half good defense, good offense, shot the ball pretty well. We got a lot of offensive putbacks, created turnovers, created some transition, and we were very active."
In other words, just like Weber drew it up on the blackboard. He was especially pleased with the ball pressure first half that forced WMU out of its game.
"Mike Davis set the tone right away. He denied the ball at the top, got a steal, got a dunk. Got a little putback to start the game. Now he's doing the active things that are important for us. And D.J. (Richardson) sets the tone with the ball pressure."
The Illini shot 56% first half while working for open midrange jumpers. Weber felt it was a special half all around.
"You had the magic level I think in the first half. You could say we lost a little of the mental approach second half and didn't shoot quite as well."
Weber pushed for a great five minutes to begin the second half, but it wasn't to be. Playing more relaxed, the Broncos began to hit shots and show more bounce. They quickly reduced the lead, but the Illini made plays when needed to maintain a comfortable lead. The 15 point final was as close as WMU could get the entire second half.
Weber was philosophical about the downturn.
"We hoped at halftime to have a good first five minutes. But they hit a couple of threes. They're loosey-goosey. They're at home and just started playing. We probably didn't have quite the intensity.
"Obviously, you want to keep it going for 40 minutes. But it's probably good to deal with a little adversity and see if we get ourselves to make some plays. We didn't finish them, but we sure did a good job first half. It was a good win."
The Illini did show one continuing problem. Bronco freshman center Matt Stainbrook hurt the Illini with 16 points on the inside. He used his 290 pound frame to create space for short jumpers and layins.
"We didn't do a good job on the big guy," Weber acknowledged. "He made some tough shots. We've got to do a better job of dealing with inside people if we're gonna really beat some good people. We're gonna have some good ones this week with Zeller (Tyler, North Carolina) and Gonzaga's big people."
Tisdale had trouble guarding Stainbrook, but he led the Illini with 18 points and seven rebounds. Weber said Tisdale shot well, except for his patented hook shot.
"He's got to make those hooks. He should be 80% on those. To him that's a layup. But he did make shots, and he got four offensive rebounds."
For the game, the Illini hit 52% of their shots while holding WMU to 44%. Brandon Paul added 14, and Davis and Jereme Richmond provided 12 points each. Richmond also had 5 boards in one of his most efficient games. McCamey was cold from the field, scoring just 8 points. But he added to his nation-leading assist total with 10 while having zero turnovers.
The Illini now must prepare for a difficult week against outstanding opponents. Weber is hoping continued Illini fan support will help push them over the top.
"We've got a big week coming up. I told them it's like a Sweet 16. We've got (North) Carolina at home, but then you go to Seattle to play Gonzaga. I'm hoping we'll have a nice turnout in Seattle. You've got two very good quality teams.
"If we're gonna be an elite team, a special team, you've got to beat the big boys. You've got to beat the best. That's our goal right now. To me, the Wake Forest game and the Michigan State game here last year were the most energized games since I've been here. I'm hoping we'll have the same energy on Tuesday night."