There is no doubt the reality of approaching their last college games inspired Illinois seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole Saturday. McCamey said he thinks about it every day.
"Senior night is gonna be the last time playing in the Assembly Hall. It's here now, and we can't take nothing for granted. Coach said it doesn't matter what we did at the beginning of the season if you don't do nothing in March. Our legacy begins right here."
Davis was equally inspired by a determination to rise above the petty name-calling and negative judgments some fans have expressed about their inconsistent play this season.
"Everyone has been hammering us the whole season, talking about how the seniors were not stepping up. We took it as a challenge to come out and play well. We wanted to shut people up. The seniors are here, and we want to lead this team to a big season. We hope to go to Purdue Tuesday and get a big win."
It sounds simple enough, but the seniors and their younger teammates have not always responded well to challenges. Illinois coach Bruce Weber was deeply concerned his team would continue to play tight, so he reached deep into his bag of tricks. It appears to have helped.
"I think the biggest key to today's win was Whiffle Ball last night. We played Whiffle Ball last night instead of scouting report. What the heck, we'll try anything.
"We played a game. Most of the guys don't know anything about baseball. A couple guys had played, but a couple didn't have any clue. They didn't know what a force out was, they didn't know anything.
"I've done it before. We've done bowling, kickball, whatever, just different things. They had fun. The whole thing was to make them feel good about themselves, feel happy and loose. That's all you can do right now.
"I don't think any of those guys are confident as it is. I think the whole thing weighed on them mentally. I tried to just be there for them and help them."
Whiffle Ball wasn't Weber's only mechanism for building individual and team confidence.
"We've got to feel good about ourselves. We've got to have enthusiasm, energy. All we did yesterday was clap in practice. Before we did anything else, we clapped. Clap for yourself, clap for your teammates, clap for everybody."
Weber also gave them positive thoughts to accompany their lighter mood.
"We talked about, no matter what happened, you can't be negative and dwell on a lot of stuff that you can't change now. But what you can control is what's there, a three game season. It started today. A couple home games and a tough game at Purdue. Make the most of it.
"I didn't do a scouting report on Iowa before the game. I just talked about us because that's what we can control. We can control ourselves and how we approach things.
"I challenged Mike Davis to get a double-double and for Demetri to get a double-double. We were close. For Tisdale, we just wanted him to play hard and make open shots. And for Billy Cole, I said lead us on the Matto, and that's what he did. They took the challenge, played well."
Indeed they did. By scoring 18 points on 7 for 11 shooting and handing out 7 assists, McCamey became only the second player in Big 10 history to accumulate at least 1600 points and 700 assists. Michigan guard Gary Grant was the first. McCamey appeared humbled by the accomplishment.
"That's great to be acknowledged. That's a lot of points and a lot of assists. It's something I'll cherish my whole life."
Tisdale led the Illini with 25 points including two three pointers. He also grabbed 5 rebounds. Davis scored 20 points and added 9 boards. Both shot better than 50% from the field. Cole had an off-night shooting but grabbed six first half rebounds, dished out 2 assists, had two blocks and three steals.
It was fortunate the seniors came to play as D.J. Richardson, Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard had physical ailments that reduced their effectiveness. Weber said Richardson injured himself during the game and sat most of the second half on the bench.
"He tweaked his hamstring. Jereme's had a little bit of a shoulder problem, and I think he got hit on one of those plays. And then Meyers hurt his foot the other day when he collided with Joe Bertrand. Kind of a bruise on the side of the bone. So a few guys were buggered up, and we had to fight with what we had."
Fortunately, Crandall Head was prepared to help after seeing time at Ohio State Tuesday. He provided six quality minutes off the bench.
"I thought Crandall did a nice job again," Weber said. "He played solid, made good decisions, got the layup. He guarded like he can do. Slowly but surely, he's giving us more confidence."
Illini fans also brought their "A" game, and it was greatly appreciated.
"The crowd was great," Davis praised. "There were a lot of people, and there was a lot of support. They did a good job and had our backs the whole game. They're our sixth man. We need them to come out and support us every home game."
It was a good win, a decisive win. Now the question is, can the Illini break their pattern of playing poorly after a good win? Can they play inspired ball two or more games in a row? Tisdale says the right things, and everyone hopes he is correct.
"It was a good win, but we've got to come get another one. We can't settle for one; that's been our forte up to now. We've got to change that right now."
If they are to win two in a row, their game Tuesday in West Lafayette will test their mettle to the limit. Weber is eager to find out which Illini team shows up.
"Game two of our mini season will not be easy at Purdue. We've got to go there with a feeling that you can win, see if we can take the game to them."