The scene was a familiar one. Illinois is holding onto a small lead with the clock winding down. Little by little, Illini players become tight and make mistakes, allowing the opponent to catch up. Near the end of the game, the ball goes up on the opponent backboard. Illini players don't block out, allowing a putback that gives them another close loss.
Illini players and fans had flashbacks of that happening again Wednesday evening at the Assembly Hall. Normally steady free throw shooters Mike Tisdale, D.J. Richardson and Bill Cole hit only two of five free throws down the stretch, allowing Michigan to inch closer.
With the clock winding down under 10 seconds, Michigan freshman Evan Smotrycz put up a three point attempt to win the game. The ball bounced off the rim into the hands of Stu Douglass as Illini players failed to box out and battle for the rebound. Douglass threw up a last second left handed prayer that bounced left instead of right, falling away and giving the Illini an important 54-52 win.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber tried to get his guys to rebound properly at the end. Fortunately, luck was on their side this time.
"We've lost three games this year on rebounds," Weber remembered. "We kept saying in the huddle, 'No matter what, we've got to rebound the ball.' I thought for the most part we did a good job on the boards. That's a team we should do that against."
Illini senior Mike Davis, who continues to play well down the stretch, was more emphatic.
"We didn't box out at the end, as usual. We've got to fix that, we've gone through it too many times. Not getting that rebound is not okay."
Yes, the Illini still have important lessons to learn. But they desperately needed this win to get some confidence back going into road games at Michigan State and Ohio State. As Weber says, maybe it was the Illini's turn for some good luck at the end.
"I think we got a little tight down the stretch. But we made enough plays, and the ball bounced our way. It's bounced the other way several times this season, and for the last couple seasons. I'm just happy to find a win. Whether it was pretty or not, it's a win. That's the most important thing."
Weber believes the atmosphere among fans and players before the game reflected the tenuous position the Illini have put themselves in terms of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament.
"I thought there was a lot of tenseness in the building at the start. I thought we were very tight. They jumped out to a lead on us. We went small because we thought we would be a better defensive team against them early. Obviously that didn't work."
The Illini trailed 11-5 before turning on the afterburners. With Demetri McCamey hitting his first three shots, the Illini went on an 8-0 run to take a 15-13 lead. They later hit 9 straight points to grab an 11 point lead at 30-19 and took a 32-22 advantage into halftime.
Weber was pleased the way his players responded to UM's quick start.
"We did come back. I thought Demetri and Mike Tisdale really responded and played good basketball. Even though Mike Tisdale was not starting, he kept his head up and got in there and did some very good things. I thought first half, great defense after the first five minutes. They had 11 first five and 11 the next 15."
Michigan turned up the heat second half, and the Illini became sluggish. Turnovers aided the UM cause, allowing them to inch closer as the game neared its conclusion.
Trying to limit Michigan's patented three point shooters, the Illini extended their defense. The Wolverines responded by hitting backdoors and driving for layups and dish-offs. UM shot only 11% on threes but still came within an eyelash of winning.
Throughout the season, every second half mistake seems to magnify Illini player concerns. As they tighten up, their half court offense stagnates, making scoring more difficult. The Illini used the fast break effectively first half against UM, but Weber wished they could have continued pushing the ball later in the game.
"We ran first half. Second half we didn't get as much transition. I think that's where we've got to get better. Because now you get into half court offense late in the game. Everyone gets a little tight, and they take away things.
"If we could get a couple easy baskets here and there, it would help. We missed some easy ones too. And then obviously the free throws down the stretch."
McCamey led the Illini with 18 points. His confidence stimulated by his quick start, he began to show glimpses of his play from early in the season according to Weber.
"He got a little mojo. He's been in the gym, put time in. Even today, he came early before the shoot-around, he came early before the game. I told the coaches as the shoot-around, 'He's making shots.' That's a positive. But he overdid it on a couple plays. It's way better than he was a couple other games."
McCamey expanded on his effort to end a lengthy slump.
"I'm coming in extra, and working with Coach (Wayne) McClain before the game. Give credit to the coaches for making me get in the gym and putting up a lot of shots in the gym night in and night out to get out of this slump. I think tonight I got out of it a little bit."
Tisdale reminded how important a confident McCamey means to the rest of the team.
"As Demetri goes, the team goes. He's the engine behind us. At Minnesota he was all over the place. He didn't score much, but hustling he got us all going. He did again tonight. Hopefully we can keep that up."
Tisdale scored 12 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. Mike Davis added 8 points and 10 boards. He also led the team with 5 assists and added a block and a steal in another good all-around game. Jereme Richmond ended with 6 points and 6 rebounds.
Weber was reminded it has been a long time since three seniors shared the post game dais for assembled media.
"It has. I'm happy for them. It's been a tough go. Mike Davis hasn't been perfect, but he's played hard. He's played with good energy for probably three weeks. The other two have had struggles, but they stepped to the plate. Now let's see if they can have a great finish."
Tisdale sounded like a man on a mission.
"This is an extremely important win for us. Last year, Minnesota came in and took our NCAA bid. It was kind of the same situation this year. We ended up getting a win this time, and we've got to continue that.
"I'm gonna bring everything I've got, and these guys next to me will. We've got a few games left before we leave here. We've been in a slump and had some bad games throughout our whole career. We're gonna forget about that and move on. We're not gonna worry about that any more."
Weber hopes this win, which gives the Illini a 7-6 record in the tough Big 10 conference, allows his player a chance to relax and not worry as much about winning and losing and play with reckless abandon for GameDay at East Lansing Saturday.
"Now we can go to Michigan State and just relax and play and get after it. You've got to guard and everything, but I hope there's no pressure. You could feel the pressure tonight. Even the crowd, it seemed like the air was thick.
"So now you go up and lay it all out. See what happens. Maybe we'll shoot the ball well too. That would help."