The Northwestern Wildcats faced a buzz saw Thursday evening. The Illinois basketball team shot a blistering 81.8% from the field first half to build a 23 point lead at the break. The Illini were 18 of 22 from the field, including 6 of 7 from the arc, and 5 of 6 from the free throw line in a practically perfect first half performance.
Illini coach Bruce Weber was pleasantly surprised by the result.
"This was totally unexpected. You've got 15 more nights of tough games. You're gonna have to fight and scrap and find a way to win it. It's a happy surprise."
In contrast, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody was subdued afterward.
"Not much competition out there tonight. They played extremely well, and we had something to do with that. We were unable to stop them right from the get-go. The first four possessions three threes and a three point play.
"It didn't get much better for us from then on. We tried a few different defenses, but nothing seemed to be effective. I thought they played real well on both ends, offensively and defensively."
Demetri McCamey, who led the Illini with 14 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds in just 28 minutes of action, explained why the Illini were able to shoot a record-breaking 70.5%, 64.3% from the three point line.
"I think we've got a lot of good shooters. It's just about making the right plays and taking the right shots at the right time. We've got to give credit to all the guys for making shots and making the right plays.
"We've got a lot of unselfish people on this team who want to win ball games. Everybody is gonna share the ball. It's all about everybody being happy and trying to win ball games."
Mike Davis, who scored 12 points and added 7 rebounds, had an amazing 7 assists in the game, by far a career high. Ball movement and great shooting were keys he said afterward.
"Just finding my teammates. We had the high-low working the first half, me and (Mike) Tisdale. It came to me and I threw it down to him. A couple skip passes to Meech (McCamey) against the zone, and he got the shots down. My teammates were making shots."
No matter what defense NW tried, the Illini were prepared. They created mismatches against man-to-man and skewered a porous zone defense with crisp inside passing for dunks and layins." It was a clinic, with the Wildcats serving the patsy role.
In their defense, the Wildcats were playing with their star John Shurna hobbled by a high ankle sprain. Carmody found nobody who could take up the slack. From the outset, the entire Northwestern team appeared to lack bounce.
"It didn't seem like we had the energy that was necessary to win, especially on the road in a tough place against a tough team." Carmody said. "Shurna is limited right now. When you have a team, when somebody is down a little bit, somebody else will pick it up and fill in for that. We weren't able to find anybody to do that."
But even with a healthy Shurna, this was the Illini's special night. They were on fire from the start and kept pouring it on. The Illini scored the first six points of the game, and they also enjoyed runs of 13-0 and 8-0 in the first half to extend their lead. A Wildcat 8-0 run kept the score close for awhile, but the Illini countered.
Unlike some games, the Illini kept the pressure on to begin the second half. Davis scored the first 7 Illini points, and his teammates enjoyed two more 7-0 runs to extend the lead. Weber has been preaching the importance of the first five minutes of the second half and going for the jugular to put a team away, and tonight the Illini did that.
"I kept talking about that in the huddle, even at halftime," Weber stated. "I thought one of the keys was I challenged Demetri, I challenged Mike Davis to come back and play when you're happy. It's not their strong suit.
"I thought Mike Davis got offensive rebounds, and we still guarded on the other end the first five minutes of the second half. That was positive; that's where we've got to make improvement.
"We're trying to get them to understand that playing with the lead, you still have to execute. You still can't be relaxed and casual. It's something you've got to feel good about. Maybe we're making progress. I also know the next game's a whole other animal."
Tisdale liked the feeling of putting a team away.
"We came out more mature than we have in the past. We really stepped on their throats. We've been saying all year we've got to finish games, finish teams off. We came out second half and didn't give them any confidence and finally finished a game right."
Six Illini ended with double figures on the night. Besides McCamey and Davis, Tisdale had 13 points, Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard had 11 apiece, and D.J. Richardson contributed 10 as 11 Illini scored.
The Illini also dominated the rebounding by a 40-17 margin. Of course, NW had few defensive opportunities with the Illini making most of their shots. And their 34.3% shooting gave the Illini an advantage on the other end. Tisdale and Brandon Paul supported Davis and McCamey by pulling down five boards each.
Weber is happy to be 3-0 to begin the Big 10 season, but the hardest games are yet to come.
"It's good. It's a lot better feeling than we had at Christmas. But it's still gonna be a long journey, and a lot of things can happen. Craziness happens, like tonight. I don't expect it to happen much."
The next game is at Penn State, and the Illini have not fared well against them in recent years. Tisdale reminds of the importance of keeping an even keel.
"Anytime you go on the road, you can't lose focus. We can't be too high right now. The big key right now is coming back and being mature, taking it to them on the road."
Complacency wins no games. The Illini must remain hungry throughout the conference season according to Weber.
"Here's the question, the maturity of our guys. We go to Penn State, and then we have to go to Wisconsin. We have to keep moving forward and improving. That's the biggest thing. If you stay the same, somebody's gonna go by you."