Penn State was lethargic after a long and traumatic trip to Champaign-Urbana, and its second leading scorer Jeff Brooks dislocated his shoulder near the end of the first half. But the Illini would likely have won regardless on this snowy, icy night in central Illinois.
Coach Bruce Weber had trouble making it to the game also as only 3470 total fans braved the elements. But he and his team were thrilled to see so many students there to support them.
"It was loud," Weber agreed. "It was not quite as loud as a regular game, but there was great energy in the building. Our players were fired up when they came in from warmups. They said, 'Coach, the Krush is full.' That was a positive. I think they felt good about it.
"I almost didn't get out of my neighborhood, to be honest. There were three cars stuck in the street. I finally got through a big snow drift."
Bill Cole lost his starting berth to Jereme Richmond, but he came off the bench to provide solid leadership and hustle in addition to 10 points, four rebounds and two assists. He emphasized how important it was to get this win.
"We needed this one. We dropped one last week, but we needed this one even more because emotions were coming down. It was exciting to see us come back on offense. I thought we moved the ball great.
"After Thursday night, everyone just wanted to get back on the court. We were so eager to get back on the court. We played pretty well."
Weber believes athletic director Ron Guenther realized the team needed this game for morale as much as record and worked to make it happen Tuesday night.
"I appreciate Mr. Guenther. If you pushed the game to tomorrow, who knows. Maybe we don't have the game. We have to play Saturday. He called me last night and said we would make every effort to get it in. He realized we had the bye, and we needed a win."
Illini players and coaches faced a fan frenzy after the embarrassing Indiana loss, enough to make them doubt their abilities. Weber's mantra was a simple one.
"We've just got one game at a time. That's all we've talked about. You can't worry about the fans. Fans are fans. They're gonna rip you if you don't win, don't play well. You've got to worry about yourself and focus on what's at hand. We've got to get some toughness, we've got to get some leadership, and we've got to move the basketball."
The pep talk must have helped as everyone put team ahead of self. Nearly every basket was preceded by a great pass from a teammate according to Weber.
"21 assists on 24 baskets, we moved the basketball. The only time we struggled was when we didn't move it and tried to make plays on our own."
Fans insisted Illinois make major changes, but other than starting Richmond Weber resisted. For instance, it made no sense to change defenses given the consistency of Illini play on defense this season. The Illini have now held 8 straight foes under 40% shooting.
"We played good defense. They get 51 and 33%. That's been the solid thing, and that's got to continue if we're gonna make progress. And we made some shots. That makes it look good. We really look good when we move the ball and make shots.
"Defense hasn't been our problem. It's been the offense, making shots and moving the basketball. And the rebounding once in awhile. Today we controlled the boards 38-28.",/P>
Mike Davis led the Illini with 22 points and 7 rebounds. He is now 6th on the career Illini rebound list. Most of his buckets were on slams off great feeds from teammates.
"Our game plan was to work the pick-and-roll efficiently. I think we did that. My teammates did a good job coming off the ball screen hard and finding me under the basket."
Davis may be evolving into the leader the Illini need. He was quick to praise his teammates afterward.
"I think everybody played well. D.J. was in double figures with 10 points, Jereme did a great job on the boards (10 rebounds to go with 8 points), Mike Tisdale played well, Brandon Paul and Bill Cole also played well."
Better yet, maybe Davis is finally growing up according to Weber.
"Obviously, Mike Davis has been pretty consistent. He misses a layup, Tisdale misses a layup second half, and they come back. We've had so many times when they hang their head and don't go make the next play."
Demetri McCamey passed Dee Brown for second place on the all-time Illini career assist chart by adding five this evening. He still isn't shooting well, but Weber cares only about how much McCamey did to spark his team.
"I think Demetri was fine. Five to one assists to turnovers, that's what he needs to do. A lot of positives. Brandon 5 assists also. Some good reads on the ball screens."
Penn State star Talor Battle was held to 12 points. Richardson had primary responsibility for defending him. Cole said the game plan to limit his opportunities worked like a charm.
"That was a big emphasis in our scouting report, to shut down everything on the wings. If we let them get into their sets, they were gonna break us down. So we pushed them out so they couldn't get into it."
Now, the question is whether the Illini can take their show on the road. Northwestern looms Saturday, and the Wildcats will seek revenge for what happened in Champaign a few weeks ago.
"It was a positive win, positive energy," Weber enthused. "Now we've got to go to Northwestern. You beat them here with an historical performance. Now, you've got to realize they beat us there last year. We've got to come and play 40 minutes. They just played Ohio State down to the last with out Jon Shurna. So it's not gonna be an easy contest for us."
More than anything, Weber is trying to remind his players how they played and felt early in the season when they played with confidence. If they can duplicate that, they can win road games as well as home games.
"I told them it's the start of a new season. Against Irvine, we had fun, we had energy, we went at people. Don't lose that. Remember what we were and what we can be. Now can we take that on the road?"