Illinois played as well the first 12 minutes of the first half as any time this season. Running offense to perfection and shooting 77%, the Illini shot out to a 31-18 lead and appeared capable of pulling a major upset against the fifth ranked team in the nation.
However, Purdue hit four straight threes to bring them right back as Illini point guard Demetri McCamey sat with two fouls. The Illini made only one turnover with McCamey in the game but added four more to allow Purdue to tie the game at the half, 37-37.
"We lost our poise a little bit when McCamey went out," Illini coach Weber understated. "There was a foul on every possession, and Demetri gets two quick fouls. He has to sit, we lost our poise, they make the threes. Give them credit, they made the shots."
Just like the first meeting in Champaign, Purdue had early momentum second half to grab a six point lead at 53-47. But a McCamey jumper and Brandon Paul's drive brought the score back within two. With Mike Tisdale now on the bench with four fouls, the Illini had three straight opportunities to tie the game but failed.
Quick shots, mistakes and shoddy defense by the Illini, the same culprits in the Champaign game, allowed Purdue to put on one of its patented runs, scoring seven straight to go up 60-51. It appeared the game would be over at that point, but the Illini continued to battle. They hit seven straight of their own on a Jereme Richmond dunk and a rare five point play since Mike Davis was fouled as McCamey hit a three.
Purdue was hanging on for dear life after McCamey hit one of two foul shots to make the score 64-62. When the Illini defense held, they had a chance to tie the game or take the lead. But a Bill Cole give-up pass was intercepted by Boilermaker star E'Twaun Moore. Cole's unnecessary foul on the layin gave Purdue a five point margin it would never relinquish.
The Illini were down just three when Mike Tisdale went up for a layup. Purdue's other senior star JaJuan Johnson blocked it back into Tisdale's hands. Surprise hero D.J. Byrd swatted away the second attempt, ending the Illini's last chance. Moore hit a big three, finding no hands in his face with the shot clock running down to insert the final dagger.
Weber bemoaned Tisdale's misses.
"We hung in there and hung in there. Tisdale gets blocked. Was it a foul? They didn't call it. He gets two shots, and it doesn't go.
"We've got to learn to play smarter when you're going against good players. They have two special seniors, and they really played special."
This season has been especially frustrating for all the games the Illini had chances to win at the end but didn't. In each case, Weber reminded of the solution that didn't occur.
"Somebody's got to step up and make some plays."
It was another road loss, but unlike some games the Illini came to play. Weber was pleased with the effort but wondered what might have been.
"I'm proud of the kids; I thought we played focused and played hard. I'm sad that we haven't played this way all year."
McCamey ended with 18 points, five rebounds, four assists and just two turnovers. Davis had another double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Richmond hit double figures with 10 points, and he grabbed five boards. Brandon Paul also scored 10 points and had three assists. But four turnovers including three charges limited his effectiveness.
Johnson led Purdue with 23 points. Moore added 18 points, five boards, five assists and two steals. Byrd scored 16 points, grabbed seven rebounds, added three assists and a steal. He also took Paul's charges and was a thorn in the Illini's side all night. Another unsung hero was 6'-3" Ryne Smith, who scored 8 points and was credited with 9 big rebounds.
The Illini played well, especially the seniors. But several Illini seemed eager to give up the ball against Purdue's pressure. Instead of making a good pass, they simply saw the first teammate and threw a weak prayer toward him. It is a long-term problem that appears to have no solution. Eight second half turnovers gave the Boilermakers several layups and allowed them to keep momentum on their side.
There is one final regular season game, an 11:00 am Saturday tilt with Indiana at the Assembly Hall. It will be Senior Night for the Illini, and Weber says his seniors deserve praise for all they have given the school these past four years.
"It's gonna be tough. I'll be honest, I don't like 11 o'clock on Senior Day. We owe it to our seniors, and our seniors owe it to themselves to play a great ball game.
"They beat us already. We should be the team that is motivated, but you never know. They will play hard; they have nothing to lose."
Despite everything, a win Saturday should give the Illini an NCAA berth, something they have working toward since they missed out last year. Weber believes good things are still possible before the end of the season. But fans must get fired up early for the morning start.
"I hope our fans show up. I know it hasn't been all roses and butterflies and all that. But we can still do something special beginning Saturday."