Right before the start of the Minnesota game, Illinois coach Bruce Weber gave his players a strong visualization of what was ahead of them.
"I told our team before the game we had to be in a fox hole. I don't know if the guys understood what a fox hole was, but we were going to a battle, to a war. We had to play hard."
In a serendipitous moment, a bit of divine intervention in the form of 150 members of the Orange Krush removed their Minnesota garb to reveal orange Illini regalia. Weber said it couldn't have come at a better time.
"It was so cool, right before, when they took off their shirts, it was just good timing. I had just said we're in a fox hole, and I said, 'Look up there. We've got somebody with us in the fox hole. Let's do them justice for coming up here and giving a heck of an effort.' I wish we had room for them on the plane."
It wasn't that hard to motivate the team this week. They knew they had embarrassed themselves in losses on the road to weaker opponents, and their backs were against the wall. Weber was happy for his guys after the frustrations they have been feeling lately.
"It was just a positive win for our guys. We were hurting. They came together and responded. We were hard on them this week. You could just feel sorry for yourself, but they didn't and came back.
"ESPN has called them out. The Big Ten Network has called them out. I told them we've got to respond to it. It's not just me, this is other people. We're too good to let things slip."
It wasn't a pretty game, but it wasn't meant to be. The Illini sacrificed finesse and shooting touch for aggression and determination. Weber will take that anytime, as long as a win accompanies it.
"The whole difference was playing hard. We had 44 on the Matto (play-hard chart), a season high. We gutted it out, we grinded it out. And we guarded well. Our pressure gave us lots of deflections."
Demetri McCamey led the Illini on the Matto with 9. Yes, the same McCamey who was benched to start the game for lack of effort. The same McCamey who has shunned defense for offense throughout his career.
McCamey played like a man possessed when he entered the game for the first time at 15:47 of the first half. He dove in a steal attempt, played defense well enough to earn three steals and pushed the ball against a bigger Minnesota team.
He struggled with turnovers, committing five compared to four assists, but his mistakes were errors of commission rather than omission. He ended with 17 points and four rebounds. Weber acknowledged McCamey's effort afterward.
"He hit the boards, he got steals. He played so hard he cramped. Not starting him maybe gave him a little jolt."
He also was seen leading his players into battle. He yelled instructions and brought his teammates together numerous times. He played the way a senior leader is supposed to play.
Mike Tisdale didn't start either, and he never got untracked offensively. But he cheered his teammates from the bench and fought hard when in the game. Despite scoring only four points and grabbing just one board, he had two steals and 3 blocked shots in 19 minutes of action.
The Illini missed their first five shots of the game, but they were moving well on offense and playing aggressively on defense. They took their first lead at 9-7 as part of a 7-0 run and extended their lead to 17-12 before the Gophers rallied.
When a Trevor Mbakwe layin gave Minnesota a 21-19 lead, the Illini went on an 11-0 run to pull out to a 29-21 advantage. But the defense broke down right before the half, allowing the Gophers four point-blank shots to make it a one point Illini lead at halftime.
Throughout the first half and deep into the second, it appeared the Illini wanted the game so badly they were shooting with strength rather than touch. Their shots were hitting the back of the rim and bounding away. Even after they finally hit a few late in the game, they only pulled their shooting percentage up to 39.3%. It was enough to win.
"We kept missing shots," Weber remembered. "They missed a lot of layups, but we kept missing open shots. We kept saying, 'We're fine, we're fine.' D.J. (Richardson) made a big one, Mike Davis made a big one, Billy (Bill Cole) made a big one, and Brandon (Paul) made the free throws down the stretch."
Paul finished with 12 points, including 8 for 8 at the free throw line. He hit six at the end to help the Illini pull away. He also helped on the board by grabbing 7. Davis tied McCamey with 17 points, and he led the Illini with 9 rebounds. Cole scored five while adding two assists and a steal.
Richardson added 11 points. Meyers Leonard started his first game as an Illini and contributed 3 points and 3 rebounds in 19 minutes. Jereme Richmond scored only two points, but he grabbed 6 boards, dished out 4 assists and had two steals in a good all-around effort.
Mbakwe was outstanding for Minnesota. The junior ended with 17 points and 16 rebounds. He had a double-double by halftime. Ralph Sampson added 16 points and 11 rebounds as the Gophers out rebounded the Illini by 7. And Blake Hoffarber added 15.
Weber praised for Mbakwe.
"Mbakwe is a man. It was a challenge, but we got enough rebounds and made enough plays."
Weber was reminded the Illini could be competitive with any team in the country if they played this hard every game while also shooting a high percentage.
"There's no doubt. The whole thing is to play hard. We're a team that can't deal with success. It scares me a little bit. The first thing I said was, 'I loved how hard you played, but now you've got to do it again. If not it will nullify it, especially at home."
Purdue invades the Assembly Hall Sunday in the first of two matchups with the Big 10's second place team. If the Illini can somehow find a way to play this hard every game, wins are possible. But the Illini still have much to prove.
"I'm very proud of the guys," Weber stated. "I hope we have a great crowd on Sunday and see if we can get after Purdue. It will not be easy."