Fiery Tom Crean and a "Red Out" crowd had their Hoosiers ready for a top performance and got it. Playing without two of their top three players, out due to injuries, the Hoosiers made up for it with intense defense and a never-say-die attitude.
After laying an egg at Iowa, it was no surprise Indiana had a peak performance. Likewise, three straight emotionally intense games for the Illini made a letdown predictable. Regardless, it was a game the Illini needed to win to keep their NCAA hopes alive and their fans from jumping off cliffs.
It was not to be. Illinois coach Bruce Weber accepts blame but has no answers at this point.
"Obviously disappointing. I don't know what to say, to be honest. I wish I had some answers, a secret formula. It's my fault."
The head coach is clearly the authority responsible for every win or loss, but 17 second half points on 22% shooting win no games. The Illini had plenty of opportunities but couldn't convert enough of them. For example, Weber points to first half offensive rebounds.
"We had a lot of offensive rebounds at halftime, I think we had 11 offensive rebounds. But we got only 9 points off it, so we weren't finishing things. They had three offensive rebounds at that point and had 7 points. We were getting all those extra opportunities and were not finishing them."
After three straight hot-shooting performances to begin the Big 10 season, the Illini have become the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Mike Tisdale hit only 2 of 10 shots, Brandon Paul was 1 for 5, Bill Cole was 0 for 3 on threes, and D.J. Richardson hit 2 of 6.
Demetri McCamey made only 2 of 11 shots (2 of 7 from 3) and had only three assists to go with 5 turnovers. The Illini need McCamey back in a good groove.
"We've got to get Demetri going again," Weber understates. "He hasn't played well in a couple weeks."
Part of the Illini shooting woes can be attributed to an aggressive Indiana defense that hounded McCamey and anticipated Illini plays well. Weber said they used an unusual defense.
"I guess you call it a line-and-three. They're two guys are kind of in a zone and three were chasing a little bit. We got good opportunities, we've just got to make some of those shots. You've got to give them credit. They played with a lot of energy."
The Illini didn't lack intensity either according to Weber.
"I thought we had good practices. We had good energy in practices. It wasn't that we didn't fight or battle. We couldn't get anything going offensively."
Indiana shot out to a quick 6-0 lead, but the Illini battled back and grabbed a 32-20 lead at halftime on a Richardson three. After 5 minutes and 28 seconds where neither team scored to begin the second half, Mike Davis, the only Illini player in double figures, hit a jumper to give the Illini a four point lead. But a Jordan Huls three gave IU the lead back at 41-39. It was a dogfight the rest of the way.
Huls hit another three to put the Hoosiers up by four, but the Illini scored the next seven points, five by Paul, to give them their last lead at 49-46. After Christian Watford hit two free throws, Mike Davis missed a 3-foot floater. On the next possession, Tisdale had his layup under the basket blocked. A rebound flip by Tom Pritchard proved to be the winning bucket for IU, and Huls finished it off with two free throws.
Weber lamented the late action afterward.
"You keep it close, and then a bounce, they get the rebound putback. We have two or three opportunities where we got the ball in the paint and didn't get it down.
"We lost Huls down the stretch when they made their little run. Demetri threw it away, so now he goes down to the other end and is worried about that instead of guarding Huls, and he hits a wide open three."
Whether it is a lack of ability, a lack of leadership, a lack of confidence, a lack of coaching, a lack of courage under pressure or some other cause, the Illini are missing an important ingredient. With each loss, their confidence suffers further, magnifying the problem. Unless they can find some answers soon, they could be found wanting again come tournament time.