Illinois burst out to a quick lead, expanded it through the first part of the second half and coasted to the finish line. The Illini led 46-24 at halftime, increased it to 57-32 on a Demetri McCamey three and withstood a furious UNLV rally at the end. It was enough of a blowout that TV announcers Marv Albert and Steve Kerr encouraged viewers to switch channels for a more competitive game.
Illini coach Bruce Weber was both ecstatic and relieved afterward.
"I'm just happy. I'm happy for our guys. We played good basketball. This is the way we played at the beginning of the year."
It's fun for Weber to describe a solid effort against a solid team.
"Tonight we were very consistent and played at a high level. They executed the game plan. We really wanted to keep them out of transition. We got more transition points than they did. It's hard to keep them out of the paint, and we did that.
"I think our defense first half really frustrated them, and we were able to get some easy baskets in transition. We got some steals, we protected the lanes and a lot of bounces went our way and some shots went in.
"So many guys played well. You could just go down the line. Obviously, it starts with Demetri. It was a great team effort. When you have a good attitude and you work at it, things happen good for you."
Former Illinois coach Lon Kruger, on the losing end of his first matchup with his former team, praised the Illini effort.
"Obviously, the Illini were much the better team. They controlled things from the very start and jumped on us early. I thought we did better the second half, but Illinois had control of the game. Coach Weber had them ready, and I thought they played great."
Illini seniors Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, Bill Cole and McCamey won their first NCAA Tournament game in their last chance. The win balanced the scales after they lost a first round game two years ago. McCamey spoke for them all when describing his post game feelings.
"It's tremendous. We made it our sophomore year and lost the first game to Western Kentucky, so we didn't want to do that today. Everybody came out and played 110%."
Davis said the Illini followed the game plan. And they did something they have struggled to do all season, hold onto a sizeable lead as the game neared its conclusion.
"It felt good. We wanted to come out first five minutes and set the tone. They talked about setting the tone in the pregame, and we wanted that also. We started the game off well and got some stops and got out to a good lead.
"And we kept the foot on the pedal. At every timeout, I kept telling Tisdale, 'Keep your foot on the pedal, keep your foot on the pedal.' That's what we did. Credit our guards. Our guards broke the press, passed it ahead, and we got some easy shots."
McCamey didn't want to see his career come to an end.
"We talked about it in the locker room. We were fighting for our lives. We knew if we lose the game it's the last one in the Illini uniform for the seniors. We didn't want that to happen. We wanted a chance to win our first NCAA game, and we kept our foot on the pedal against a good UNLV team."
The seniors haven't always met fan expectations, but Weber had nothing but praise for them afterward.
"The seniors were very good and very special. That's what you've got to have."
Ahead 14-12 early in the first half, the Illini went on a 15-0 run to demoralize the Runnin' Rebels. McCamey hit two threes and a drive in that stretch. Maintaining a shooting percentage above 60% throughout the half, the Illini later added a 6-0 run to further increase their lead.
The Runnin' Rebels went on a 10-2 run midway through the second half. Illini fans were on edge, remembering frequent late game collapses. But then D.J. Richardson, M.I.A. for the last 6 weeks, broke out of an extended slump by hitting two straight threes to regain a 20 point lead. It was manna from heaven, and the relief on Illini faces was obvious.
Davis led the Illini with 22 points, 9 rebounds and 5 assists. He now has over 900 career boards. McCamey had 17 points, pushed the ball at every opportunity and broke the press. His seven assists helped the Illini produce layups on 10 of their 17 first half buckets. He did turn the ball over 6 times against constant UNLV pressure, but the good far outweighed the bad.
Richardson ended with 10 points on 4 for 4 from the field including the two threes. Brandon Paul tallied 8 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists while playing outstanding defense. Tisdale scored 6 points and added 5 rebounds. Crandall Head provided two fast break layups. Meyers Leonard also contributed four points in brief minutes.
Weber praised his young guards, who remained steady against pressure and played good defense throughout.
"I thought Crandall was very good. D.J. stepped in and made some shots when they were kind of pushing us. And then Brandon had a great first half but not really good second half. If we're gonna have a chance Sunday, he's gonna have to put them together."
Jereme Richmond was withheld from the game. The freshman has had a checkered first year and has only rarely lived up to expectations. Weber was cautious in his explanation for why Richmond didn't play.
"He violated Athletic Department rules and team rules. It's gonna stay internal, and we're gonna move forward. It's a shame, it's sad, but our guys responded well."
For the game, the Illini hit 59.6% from the field including an impressive 53.8% from the arc. In contrast, UNLV shot 38.9% and just 29.2% from three. The Illini outrebounded the smaller Runnin' Rebels 33 to 25 and had 18 fastbreak points compared with only 6 for UNLV.
Weber expected a much tougher game, although the Illini have played better of late.
"I'll be honest, I was a little bit leery on the matchup because of their quickness. Quickness has bothered us. I thought the last three weeks we had really played good basketball. The reason the Michigan game hurt so bad, even in that game we played so well. We just didn't finish it. It was a bad taste, but they responded tonight."
Now comes mighty Kansas, the high flying Big 12 champs coached by Bill Self, who created animosity in Illini Nation when he left Champaign after three years for greener pastures. Weber knows it will be a tough game, but anything is possible.
"They have a great team, a great program. Bill has done a tremendous job. A lot of weapons, a lot of steady play, the big guys inside. It seems like they're always throwing lob dunks to each other. I know we're gonna have to get back on defense.
"I'm just worried about Kansas and their players and seeing if we can match up with them. It's gonna take a special effort on Sunday."
This one win may not appease fans frustrated with a season of unmet expectations. But it is far better than losing and gives them temporary bragging rights.