Illini Overcome Determined Grizzlies

The Fighting Illini scored 18 straight points to turn a game-long deficit into a tenuous victory over the determined Oakland Grizzlies in the Assembly Hall Wednesday. Demetri McCamey scored 23 of his 30 points in the second half to fire up the sluggish Illini. They had to grind for everything they got, but they won.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber was matter-of-fact about his sluggish team Wednesday night.

"I don't feel great about it, but you know it's a lot better to win than to lose. We found a way, kind of grinded it out second half. We played much better basketball."

Weber was disappointed but not surprised the Illini struggled after three consecutive quality starts against good competition. He knew Oakland would be a challenge, but his team wasn't listening.

"We were probably not ready to play. I guess I didn't do a good enough job of convincing them. We've been on a pretty good high over this stretch and played pretty good basketball. You know you're gonna have a little bit of a setback. I was hoping there wouldn't be a letdown, but if there was I knew they were good enough to really make it a game."

Unlike most mid major coaches after a loss at the Assembly Hall, Oakland coach Greg Kampe talked about why his team lost instead of praising the Illini. He believed he could win, and he had his squad prepared for that possibility.

"I'm really disappointed. We did the same thing at Purdue. We got a lead, and a few mistakes let them back in it. And then at Purdue we were down two with seven minutes to go, and we blow up.

"We're really close. North Carolina came in here and got their rear ends beat pretty bad, so we know how good Illinois is. We thought it was a good matchup for us.

"There are two things our team does really well. One is defend, and the other is rebound. Illinois hasn't proven out in the stats that it is a good rebounding team. So we thought coming in our strengths might be their weaknesses. That's how you win matchups."

The Illini were in a fog the whole first half, while the Grizzles took the fight to them. Illini shots didn't just miss, they missed badly. Oakland fought for offensive rebounds while the Illini stood around watching. Oakland was clearly the aggressor, and only a late flurry allowed the Illini to creep back in it at the half 28-24.

Oakland padded the lead back to nine points at the beginning of the second stanza before the Illini went on a blistering 18-0 run to give themselves breathing room. Demetri McCamey accounted for 13 of those points including the final 11. Weber was impressed with the turnaround and compared it to last season.

"A year ago, when they'd make a run and shoot it back to nine in the second half, I'm not sure we would have had the discipline and the character to come back. Not only take the lead but go on a great spurt. Demetri really took over, D.J. (Richardson) made some plays. We did a much better job defensively."

McCamey's 30 points included 10-18 from the field, 3 of 6 from three point land including two straight heat checks during the big spurt, and 7 of 8 from the foul line. As a mature senior leader, he was quick to share the limelight with his teammates.

"Everybody picked their defensive intensity up. First half, we were dead and acting like we were in a desert. In the second half we picked it up. When they were up 9, I got in the huddle and told everybody to man up and don't let this slip. Everybody responded.

"D.J. hit threes, I made plays, Mike Davis and (Mike) Tisdale stopped the big dude (Keith Benson) even though they were in foul trouble. So it wasn't just the scoring. We did an overall good job stopping Benson and doing the things to help us win the game."

McCamey added three assists and four rebounds to his scoring. Richardson continues to shoot well from three, hitting four of eight for 12 of his 16 points overall. Freshman Jereme Richmond played 21 minutes and was the only other Illini in double figures with 10. He also grabbed five boards.

Tisdale and Davis never became involved offensively, hitting only 3 of 12 between them. Tisdale did grab 9 boards including three on the offensive end, but Davis had only 6. They did both help hold Grizzly star center Benson to 11 points, far below his average, and most of those came on free throws late.

Weber complimented Richmond and Bill Cole afterward.

"I thought Jereme was good off the bench, he gave us some good minutes. I thought Billy, his stats aren't great, but he came in and did some real nice hustle plays and got some deflections second half. We got into transition, made good decisions and found a way to win the game."

Weber has a pretty good intuition for how games might go. Seeing how poorly his team prepared in practice Tuesday, he pulled his coaches aside and discussed contingencies should it be a close game at the end.

"I talked to the coaches about late minute plays because I thought that is what it would come down to. We had an awful practice yesterday, one of the worst of the year. Part of it was the emotional high we've been on, and you've got exams and projects.

"We were losing on Matto points at halftime, and that's why we were losing in the game. We weren't quite ready to play. We were on our heels instead of our toes, not reacting but thinking. We came out a little flat. I used enough yelling yesterday, but I didn't get the right flame lit."

On a humorous note, the game began with the wrong ball in play. A smaller women's ball was accidently substituted for the game ball, and it took several minutes before officials finally checked it and made the change.

McCamey said it felt like a Nerf ball. Weber was more concerned about his team's play than the ball with which they were playing. Kampe didn't mind because his team was shooting well with it. But it was changed after about seven minutes of action.

All teams have bad games, emotional lows that inexorably follow emotional highs. Quality teams find a way to win. Weber is pleased the Illini won, and the lessons learned might help them play better in their next game Sunday against Northern Colorado.

"It was probably good for us. A little bit of humble pie."

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