Illinois survived the inspired Illinois State Redbirds in Cancun Wednesday. It was far from a polished effort, but head coach Bruce Weber cared only about the two hard-fought wins and the lessons they can provide his young team.
"You've got to find ways to win. We didn't always do that last year. We lost a lot of close games. We got a little lucky. Sam throws it away, D.J. misses his layup, Sam misses a free throw, they step out of bounds on a made three.
"Sometimes things go your way. You've got to use it as a positive step. We came here to win the tournament, and we did it. Now we feel better about ourselves and head back home."
The Redbirds burst out to a 7-0 lead to begin the game, but the Illini fought back to go ahead 11-10 on a Tyler Griffey three. It was part of a 10-0 Illini run that helped them to a seven point advantage they maintained the rest of the half.
The second half began with ISU being even more dominant. They outscored the Illini 17-3, hitting their first six shots from the field to gain their own 7 point lead at 46-39. The Illini fought back again. Sam Maniscalco hit a jumper to tie it 47 all, and his three free throws right after gave the Illini a narrow lead.
The teams battled back and forth the rest of the way. Jackie Carmichael, who led both teams with 17 points, proved too quick for Illini bigs. ISU hit a couple threes to keep it close. They would have tied it at 59 on a three by Tyler Brown, but his heel was out of bounds. The Illini held on from there.
Maniscalco led the Illini with 14 points. He was clutch down the stretch. With the UI holding a nervous 56-54 lead, he hit a big three with the shot clock running down. He also hit a layin on an out-of-bounds play and controlled the tempo of the game.
"We talked about how Sammie likes the ball in his hands at the end of games. He hit a big shot, so it was enough to win."
D.J. Richardson, named MVP of the tournament, added 13 points to the 15 he scored against Richmond Tuesday. He hit 3 of 7 threes and a couple nice mid-range jumpers. He was especially important early, hitting 8 of the Illini's first 13 points to get them back in the game.
"D.J. has probably been our most consistent guy. I'm glad somebody recognized that. Meyers (Leonard) made plays, Sammie made plays, but D.J. has been very consistent and got us off to the good start."
Brandon Paul scored 12 points, but he was only 2 of 11 from the field as his shooting slump continues. He takes threes when a closer shot might be preferable; he hit one of five from the arc. But he hit 7 of 8 free throws and showed maturity down the stretch.
"Brandon at least made a couple plays at the end. He did get going as it went on."
Meyers Leonard scored ten points and pulled down 8 rebounds a day after leading the team with 22 points. It was not enough to impress the all-tournament selectors.
"Meyers should have been on the all-tournament team. But he's got to learn he can't come and go. One half, you need two halves. One game, you need two games. You've got to keep coming and playing."
Weber got six points from Joseph Bertrand as he continues to boost his confidence and overall game. Tracy Abrams added three and Nnanna Egwu two in limited minutes. Weber felt both Egwu and Mike Shaw made progress.
"Mike Shaw went in a couple minutes and did some good things. Nnanna was very active and made a big shot when we were struggling. Nnanna will foul, but he will play hard."
There are still significant problems the Illini must overcome to challenge the top teams in the Big 10. For instance, their offense stagnated when ISU went to a variety of zone defenses. There was little if any movement on several possessions, and Maniscalco was left to dribble way out on the court with nowhere to go. It became obvious the Illini lack enough shooters to take opponents out of their zones.
Weber knew it would take well into the season to teach his youngsters the complexities of the game. At least they are learning while winning. Weber is hoping this tournament win will serve a purpose similar to the South Padre Island tournament victory three years ago.
"In '08, we had some gut-check ugly wins to win that championship. It helped us make big strides. Now we've got to come back and make some strides in practice. Hopefully we'll be a little more polished when we play Chicago State."
Illinois State played extremely well, and Weber was quick to praise them.
"You've got to give Illinois State a lot of credit. Last year they really struggled. They've added a couple guards that have given them some good energy. They can really shoot the ball from three. They put us in a bind with all those three pointers."
After Chicago State, the Illini travel to Maryland for their first true road game. It is another opportunity to make progress.
"I know Maryland isn't as good as they've been, and they've got a new coach. But we have to go to Maryland, so we have to play."
The Illini have a long way to go, but it is always better to win while you are learning. Weber is excited for the 5-0 start to the season.