Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole led an inspired Illinois team to a decisive win over Indiana before celebrating Senior Day with their families and Illini Nation. Illini coach Bruce Weber was happy for his players.
"It was obviously a good day for our seniors, for our team. The last two to three weeks or so, slowly but surely we're starting to put the pieces back together. We definitely played with a lot more energy than we did there. When we play at a high level and make shots, we're a pretty good team.
"When Demetri plays, and he's played pretty well the last 2-3 weeks, it helps us. And then Mike Davis has been consistent, Mike Tisdale is starting to make shots, and Billy Cole made a shot. I think that was a nice moment for him, especially how hard he plays and how hard he's worked."
McCamey led the Illini with 22 points, four rebounds, four assists and only 1 turnover. Senior Day is an emotional time, but he channeled it into a top effort.
"It's tough knowing it's gonna be your last chance," McCamey admitted. "But I got that emotion out in the morning when I woke up, when it finally hit me. When I was in the tunnel getting ready to come into the building, it was all business. I knew it's a basketball game, and I've got to go out and perform and be aggressive early. I think I did that."
The point guard suffered through a prolonged slump midseason, but that appears to be in the past now. He explains why he is playing better.
"Just giving it 110%. Letting the offense dictate the defense, and being aggressive. Don't be tentative, don't second-guess yourself. If you shoot it, shoot it. Make the play. It's all about playing with confidence and energy."
Weber was asked if his star is back to his early season form.
"I think pretty close. He's playing with a lot more confidence. It's one thing to score points, but it's another thing to score points and be efficient at it. In those first few games, he was our leading scorer but was only shooting 8-9 shots. He's six for nine, six free throws, 6-8 assists. Today he's 8 for 14. Good percentage, good assist to turnover ratio.
"He ate a little humble pie. The good thing is he's responded, and it's better late than never. I've said all along, if he goes, it helps a lot of other guys."
Davis added 13 points, 9 boards, 3 assists, 2 steals and a block in an outstanding effort. He feels defense was key.
"I think we're playing great defense. We're helping each other on defense. If one guy gets beat, someone has his back. We're trying to shut teams out. We can score with the best of them. We just have to worry about playing good defense, getting out in transition and getting some easy buckets because we have some athletic guys, some guys that can finish."
Tisdale also grabbed 9 rebounds in addition to his 9 points and two blocks. He provided more detail on the team's transformation from unpredictably inconsistent to quality play.
"I think we just realized we can do it, we've just got to stop talking about it. After every loss, we'd talk in the locker about how things need to change. I think we just got tired of that and tried to go out there and prove it. This is our last run. We want to win something, that's our goal.
"We've been more coachable. We haven't had the arguments. Like Coach was saying, 'We don't have to coach attitudes in the huddle, we can just coach basketball.' I think that's been a real big key for us, and I think it will continue."
Cole had his typical stat-stuffing day. He scored six points and added three assists and a block while playing excellent defense. He was happy to finally hit a three after a long dry spell. He spoke for all the seniors when explaining why he feels this Illinois team can still accomplish some big things.
"We have so many minutes under our belts as a group. We've been through everything you can possibly imagine. We've had ups and downs, we've been everywhere on the map. Nothing is new to this group, and I hope we can use that to our advantage some way."
Indiana was no doubt lacking energy after losing a heartbreaker late Thursday night and having a short turn-around time. But Weber said he is amazed at how Tom Crean continually gets them to play hard. They may have played harder second half than first.
But the Illini held the Hoosiers to 31.6% shooting from the field and only 17.6% from the arc. Jordan Hulls burned the Illini repeatedly in Bloomington but was 0-7 from the field this time. Only former Champaign star Verdell Jones hit double figures with 12 points. Weber praised the Illini defense.
"I thought our guys played with great energy, especially on the defensive end. We had a game plan, and we executed it and disrupted them. When we get stops, we get transition. We've got enough people that can make plays.
"The thing I liked today, we were active and got some deflections, we got steals, our play-hard (chart) was high. It's one thing to stop people, but if you can get stops and get steals and turnovers, you get transition. You play off your defense."
It was an impressive win. The question now is, can the Illini take this momentum into the Big 10 Tournament against Michigan Friday? Tisdale has lofty goals to accomplish.
"We want to win the Big 10 Tournament; that's our goal. We've been there a couple times and didn't quite finish. We've learned from the past, and we've improved. And then, make a run in the NCAA. We're really fighting to get in, and I think the team is in the right spot."
Davis said team goals were a big reason for playing inspired ball against IU.
"We wanted to earn a first round bye in the Big 10 Tournament. Getting that bye is huge. And us four wanting to go out on top, hopefully lead the team to win the Big 10 Tournament."
Weber was grateful the seniors could have great memories to conclude their careers. They may not have won as many games as everyone wanted, but they are special in every other way.
"I think they feel good. I think our whole team feels good. It sure was a nice moment for them, great game for them, great memories for them. They're quality kids, great representatives of the University. They've all done nice things on the court, they've been good off the court, they're gonna graduate."
Now the Illini must put Senior Day to bed and concentrate on the next task at hand.
"If we want to do something special, we've got to go to the Big 10 Tournament and continue to play at this level," Weber reminds. "See if we can ice an NCAA bid. If we want to do something that we think we should have done all year, we've got to do it on the court."