UIC is possibly the weakest opponent Illinois has faced so far this season, but the Illini found a way to make a game of it. Missing 11 of their first 13 shots and showing a lack of game focus, the Illini got behind early and showed life only during a brief period in the second half where they took their first and only lead of the game.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber was heartbroken afterward.
"I don't think we were ready to play. We thought we were gonna waltz in here and win."
UIC shot out to an early 14-5 lead as Robo Kreps hit 3 threes. The Flames had a 10 point lead at 18-8 before the Illini began a slow climb back into the game. Demetri McCamey hit one of two free throws to finally generate the first tie at 26-26. It was 28-28 at the half.
Weber cajoled his troops to fight hard first five minutes of the second half, but it was the Flames who did the fighting. They pulled back out to a 38-30 lead before the Illini turned in their only positive spurt of the game. D.J. Richardson hit a three to give the Illini their first lead of the game, 43-41.
The 15-1 run pushed the Illini lead to 49-41 and gave Illini players a false sense of security. True to their tendencies, they then relaxed and let the Flames burn a hole in Illini bravado. Kreps and Minnesota transfer Paul Carter re-established a tie at 51. From then on, it was anyone's ball game. Details point out numerous chances on both sides, but good fortune at the end favored the Flames.
Weber praised UIC but lamented the Illini's inability to produce when the game was on the line.
"You've got to give a lot of credit to UIC. They came with great energy at the start of the game and the start of the second half, two things that determined the game. We held them scoreless for a long period of time, but we had to fight and scrap to get back into it.
"You have an 8 point lead, and we told them it was only three possessions. They hadn't scored in 10 minutes. Then Kreps made the big three, Carter made a three, and we came down and played tentative. You play at a different level when you get that energy and emotion.
"We had some chances, and it just didn't go in. You've got to make plays during the crunch part of the game. You can't blame one guy, we had a lot of people that didn't make plays when it counted."
As has happened frequently this season, the Illini were outrebounded by the less athletic Flames. The UI actually had more offensive rebounds, but the Flames made better use of their opportunities.
"They have 11 offensive rebounds, but those were key ones down the stretch," Weber reminded. "It's been our demise all year. We had more offensive rebounds, but they had more second-chance points."
UIC coach Howard Moore surprised the Illini by playing a 1-3-1 zone defense for extended periods. The Illini have practiced zone offense, but a team must be fired up and focused to execute. Weber acknowledged the UIC defense hurt his team.
"A little bit. You've still got to execute your stuff. We have a zone offense, but you've got to pay attention in practice and do it when we get out there. We were tentative with the ball. People were open, we just didn't make the play.
"To their credit, they did something different that we didn't expect. It helped us take the lead; we scored 4-5 straight times. But they stuck with it. We had some plays, we had some layups that just didn't go down."
In a game where Illini big men were expected to dominate, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis didn't show up. Tisdale was a meager 1 for 6 from the field and sat extended periods with foul trouble. Davis was 1 of 5 shooting and garnered only one rebound. If they don't pick up their games soon, defeats like this one may become more commonplace.
McCamey ended with 16 points and 6 assists, but this game must rank as one of his worst of the season. He hit only 4 of 11 shots and forced things at times. The Illini needed his leadership, but it was available inconsistently. D.J. Richardson scored 13 points, and Bill Cole added 7.
Jereme Richmond grabbed an impressive 12 boards but hit only 1 of 7 shots and was especially unproductive on second chance opportunities. Meyers Leonard hit a layin and dunk for four points. Brandon Paul, who sprained his ankle late in the game, missed a couple short shots at the end.
Perhaps part of Illini lethargy stems from complications from final exams. But Weber is concerned problems may run deeper.
"I told our guys I'm scared. I was scared last week, I was scared at practice, and it caught up with us. It's really disappointing at this stage."
The Illini face an aggressive and ranked Missouri team in St. Louis Wednesday. They must come to play or they will be taking a two game losing streak into the Big 10 season. Weber says they have no choice but to regroup.
"We win as a team, we lose at a team. We've got to stand up, put your chest out and move forward. Hopefully we play better next time."