Illinois used hot shooting, strong rebounding and consistent effort to outlast Wisconsin. The Illini shot a blistering 56% shooting, enjoyed a 9 rebound advantage and limited the Badgers to 35% shooting, and yet they won by only 8 points. Mike Davis, who had 11 points, 14 boards and a big late-game block to his credit, is grateful for the win.
"It's a very good win to beat Wisconsin. They're gonna be at the top of the league at the end of the Big 10 season. They're a top 25 team, so getting this win under our belt will be huge on Selection Sunday. And it gives us a chance to win the Big 10, and that's our ultimate goal."
Senior forward Bill Cole enjoyed his second straight hot-shooting performance, scoring 11 points including 3 of 5 from the arc. He spoke along similar lines, noting the Illini were relieved to win against a blue-collar opponent that rarely makes mistakes.
"It's huge to win your home Big 10 games. Especially against a team like Wisconsin. Their system is so difficult to go against. They keep you guarding the whole shot clock. And then if you give up an offensive rebound, they put you back out for another 35 seconds.
"That's a great win for us; a really tough team to beat anywhere. It's more important to beat them at home."
Illinois head coach Bruce Weber praised Coach Bo Ryan for making his Badgers a tough out year after year.
"I thought it was a typical Big 10 game, a typical game against Wisconsin. You have to have the right mindset, understand your opponent and understand they're gonna keep playing. They don't get rattled. We go on a run, they call timeout. They calmly walk to their bench, they come out and make plays.
"You're not gonna put a Bo Ryan team away. They just keep coming at you. That's what we kept talking about. We've got to keep playing, we've got to get stops.
"Defense was much better second half, especially the threes. We told the guys it was going to be a grind-out game. We held them to 28% second half, and 27 points. We gave ourselves a chance to win."
Wisconsin committed only three turnovers on the game, none in the second half. It held a 15 point advantage in points off turnovers to make up for inconsistent shooting. Ryan had his team battling until the end. He respects the Illinois team, so the loss is understandable.
"You look at the length. You look at the teams we played, Minnesota and Illinois. We just played our first two games in the Big 10 against two teams with some wily veterans. Really good returning players, good size, good athleticism."
Demetri McCamey was a difference-maker down the stretch for the Illini. He scored 14 of his team's last 16 points on two three's and 8 free throws to keep the Badgers at bay. He ended with 21 points and 7 assists while committing only two turnovers.
Some believe Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, who finished with 19 points, five assists and no turnovers, is the best point guard in the Big 10. McCamey says he wasn't motivated to outplay Taylor.
"The Big 10 has got a lot of good guards. I don't take it personally. I just try to come out and play for Illinois by leading my team to victory. You can say you're the best point guard, but at the end of the day a point guard wins games. That's what I'm trying to do."
McCamey had more energy Sunday than the previous two games. He played 35 minutes and appeared relatively fresh at the end. He also penetrated frequently and finished some lovely layins in traffic. And he went to the foul line 15 times, sinking 11.
Weber was pleased to see the improvement but lamented how long it took his guard to learn the value of penetrating with the ball.
"We did a good job going to the basket, better than we have in the past. Especially Demetri. He came back from Christmas and announced to the team he's got to get to the basket more and get free throws. He said someone at Christmas dinner told him that.
"Well, I've been telling him that for three and a half years, you guys have been telling him, the fans have been telling him. Somebody at Christmas dinner finally got to him. If he starts doing that it will definitely help us. We actually got more free throws than they did. So that's a positive."
Davis was a terror on the glass, especially on the defensive end. He said he focused on being more aggressive after some mediocre games.
"I had to get back. Last game I only had three rebounds. It was kind of a letdown. Coach has been on me the whole year about my rebounding."
Weber was pleased his work with Davis helped. He also liked the big free throw rebound and putback Davis completed late in the game plus a big block against Wisconsin star Jon Leuer that helped preserve a safe lead.
"We've been on him. We told him to come in and watch tape. He wasn't pursuing the ball. I thought one of the big keys was his free throw putback. He did a little stunt. They missed the free throw and he got the rebound. It was a little bit of a backbreaker for them.
"He also had the big block which keeps the game with some distance. He was much more active; he was playing the way we thought he would. Now he's got to be consistent."
Leuer tied Taylor with 19 points each for the Badgers. Keaton Nankivil was the only other UW player in double figures with 11, all in the first half. Ryan reminded his team worked for plenty of open shots but missed them. The Illini defense had something to do with the poor shooting also.
Four Illini seniors led the way this game. They didn't play well as a group against UIC and Missouri. Weber found out what he must do to get his players to perform, albeit the hard way.
"I learned something. I can't let up on these guys. I have to throw chairs, I have to yell at them, do stupid things. I hate that. I just learned you can't be nice to them. You can tell me I'm not nice to Demetri, but you can't be. He just doesn't deal with it very well.
"I think the whole team thought we had arrived after the Gonzaga game. They didn't want to listen. I was hoping it would pass, but it didn't pass. It got worse. Then there was a discouraging loss and then a hard loss. They learned something, and I learned something too. You learn how to deal with your guys.
"Every group is different. I thought I wouldn't have to stay on them this year. They were so driven at first, and you saw how we played, how active we were. They thought they had arrived. It's sad, and it cost us. But maybe in the long run it helped us."
The two teams play each other again in a couple weeks, this time at the Kohl Center where the Badgers have tremendous success. It will be another war. Both coaches agree there are no easy games in the Big 10 this year.
"It won't be any easier," Weber promised. "Every game is gonna be hard in the league, and you're gonna have to have maturity, discipline and consistency if you're gonna be successful."
"Nobody's gonna feel sorry for anyone in the Big 10 this year," Ryan mused. "It's gonna be crazy."