Illini Struggle With Northern Colorado

The Fighting Illini, showing the effects of final exams and bad weather that forced low attendance, held on to defeat hot-shooting Northern Colorado 86-76 in the Assembly Hall Sunday evening. The Illini eased out to a 19 point halftime lead but let the Bears back into it with lethargic defense. The result provided plenty of correctable lessons.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber was upset with his team after it allowed Northern Colorado to make a game of it. His frustrations began in pregame warmups.

"It's fine to be loose and enjoy each other as a team. But when you come to the court, you've got to be business."

The Illini built a comfortable lead by halftime and appeared to have the game well in hand. Apparently, the players didn't take Weber's halftime words to heart.

"I thought the first half wasn't horrible, we just had some miscommunications that allowed them to get open shots that they shouldn't of. And probably at halftime they turned us off because we were up 19, and we were on their butts."

The Illini had shot 48.6% first half while holding the Bears to 36.7%. It is easy to understand how they might have disagreed with Weber's stern warning. They were thinking of just the one game, while Weber was considering long-term possibilities.

"If we're gonna be a special team, a top 10 team, which I hope that's their goal, you've got to play and be consistent. The thing I'm scared about right now is our defense has definitely slipped."

Northern Colorado proved its shooting ability second half, burning the nets for 63.6% and an impressive 61.5% from the three-point line. They put five players in double figures, topped by Neal Kingman with a game high 21. Inconsistent Illini defense allowed the Bears to seize momentum, and they made a game of it.

Weber was aware of Northern Colorado's shooting prowess, but convincing his players after the first half proved fruitless.

"We knew it would be tough going into it because we knew they could shoot the basketball and hit threes. They played small ball and got some mismatches. We knew they would spread us out, and they got their heads up and made some shots. We just didn't react very well. It was a little bit disappointing to be honest."

Senior forward Bill Cole showed respect for the Bears while agreeing with Weber's defensive concerns.

"Coach told us we can learn from a win. We got the win, so we're happy with that. But our defense let us down a little bit second half. To give up 50 points second half is terrible. So we've got some stuff to correct. We haven't been as aggressive on defense the last couple games.

"That's a really good shooting team actually. They can shoot from all five positions. When you don't have good rotations against a team like that, they'll punish you. Today there wasn't much help, and the rotations were late, especially on their threes."

Senior forward Mike Davis agreed.

"We should have blown them out. We just kind of messed around. We missed some shots, and we had to scramble to win. We (starters) had to re-enter the game at 10 minutes when some of the guys that don't get to play as much should have been in there. You never know when they'll be able to play."

Davis accepted blame for the whole senior class for the team's cavalier attitude beforehand.

"It's not hard to get up for a game. It all started in pregame warmups, we were kind of goofing around too much, laughing, shooting bad shots. It was the seniors' fault. It was my fault, Bill's fault, Demetri's (McCamey) fault and (Mike) Tisdale's fault. We've got to get ready, and it starts with us. If we're ready, the young guys will follow. We've got to be ready from the shoot-around to the walk-through to the pregame warmups."

Statistically, the Illini offense scored at an excellent clip despite its failings. D.J. Richardson and Tisdale each scored 14 points to lead the Illini. Davis and Cole added 12 each, and McCamey contributed 11 to the cause. Jereme Richmond scored 8. The Illini outrebounded the smaller Bears by just two as Davis led the way with 10. McCamey dished out 8 assists, and he got help from Richardson with 5 and Brandon Paul 4.

Meyers Leonard didn't play. He sprained his left shoulder in practice Thursday and was withheld as a precaution. Weber hopes Leonard will be able to practice by midweek.

Part of the problem may have been the complication of final exam week, leaving Illini players with a mixed focus. And part was likely the lack of a full house. Only 5,157 fans made it to the game as severe weather restricted travel.

Illini players were concerned no one would show up, so they were pleased with the crowd.

"Our team was excited about how many people came tonight," Richardson stated. "We're proud and happy they came in bad weather."

Cole provided even more detail to the situation.

"It was different, but we were prepared for it. We knew it was gonna be bad weather. Coach said we'd be lucky to get 3,000 fans to show up.

"But I think at the same time we're grateful to have that many. We've been out there today. We realize how bad it was. We just want to thank our fans that did come out today. They risked a lot to see us. We want to say, 'Thank you.'"

As a senior, Cole understands the responsibilities the team has when the Assembly Hall isn't rocking. Instead of feeding off crowd energy, the opposite is true when crowd volume is low.

"In games like that, we have to create our own energy. We've got to put energy into the crowd from us. We have to bring the enthusiasm."

That didn't happen, but it's a win. The Illini now have a week to prepare for UIC in Chicago. Weber hopes this game will serve as an important reminder to dedicate every day to improvement.

"We're in the middle of exams, and maybe we expect too much. I don't know. But I want these guys to be special; I believe we have a chance to be special. But we definitely didn't show it today."

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