Illinois coach Bruce Weber knew he needed great effort both from his players and his fans to defeat nationally ranked Gonzaga. He got both.
"I thought it was great energy in the building and great energy on the court. It was a great game for this early in the season. We made plays, they made plays."
The Illini are young and learning as they go. This was their stiffest test of the year, and they rose to the challenge.
"We've still got a lot of nerves. But every game we're getting more experience, we're getting more maturity, growing up as a team and figuring out our roles."
From the beginning, it was obvious Illinois and Gonzaga were two well-coached, evenly matched teams. The Illini pulled out to a quick lead, but the Zags came right back to within one of a tie. When the lead then increased to 26-19, Gonzaga scored the next seven points to tie.
A Brandon Paul jumper and two D.J. Richardson threes gave the Illini another cushion, but the Zags fought back again. A desperation long-distance banked three from David Stockton at the buzzer pulled the Washington visitors to within 38-36 at halftime.
The Illini were troubled with fouls the entire half. Nnanna Egwu was whistled for three fouls trying to guard Gonzaga big man Robert Sacre. Meyers Leonard and Tyler Griffey each were called for two fouls guarding the Zags big man and elite power forward Elias Harris.
Paul also had to sit several minutes with two fouls. Using 12 players, Weber was able to mix and match well enough to retain the lead, but it was a struggle. Ibby Djimde played major minutes and fought Sacre in the post. Weber said Djimde and his rookie teammates all made contributions.
"We had some foul trouble, and I've got to credit our bench for really coming through for us. Look at Ibby. He took a charge and fought on the defensive end. You can go through each guy Crandall (Head) had a steal, Tracy (Abrams) got a putback, Mike Shaw got a putback. Just a lot of good things when we could easily have went South with the foul trouble."
Leonard was impressed with Djimde's contributions.
"Ibby played amazing. He did the little things that people don't notice. He took a big charge. He had a big block. Somebody got beat, and he blocked Harris on the baseline. He battled with Sacre. He stepped up and did what he had to do."
The second half began with Gonzaga tying the game at 38. But the Illini surged out with 7 straight points to grab a lead they would not relinquish. The Zags came close several times, but the Illini always answered. The lead reached 10 a couple times before finishing with a 7-point UI win.
Sacre is Gonzaga's biggest and best weapon, and he was a beast early. He forced his way deep into the lane for easy turnarounds or foul shots, scoring 14 before halftime. Leonard scored only 4, and he had to deal with some emotional issues during the break.
"I was a little frustrated, to be honest," Leonard admitted afterward. "But I was still mentally focused. I knew I had to come out in the second half and keep my head on straight. It was a total team effort, but I came out with a little more confidence. As the game went on, I felt I continued to do good things."
Staying longer in the low post, the Illini began to find Leonard where his offensive repertoire could be effective. He made a turnaround, a lefty jump hook, and a 15 footer while helping hold Sacre to two second half points.
The better Leonard played, the more his teammates worked it into him. He finished with 21 points, 6 rebounds, one assist and one block.
"I think the guys are getting more confidence in me. If it comes in the post and I'm not able to make a move, I'll find the open player. I've always been able to go right and left hand and do a variety of things in workouts, but I'm transitioning that into game-time situations.
"In the second half they really started looking for me. I did my thing in the second half, but it all comes down to my teammates finding me."
Sacre praised Leonard after the game.
"Super athletic, he runs the floor like a deer. He's a good young player. I should have respected him a little more, I feel. He's got a great future."
Gonzaga coach Mark Few felt Leonard should have been denied the ball more.
"We knew he was physically gifted. We didn't want him getting to his left shoulder, and he got to his left shoulder a couple times. In retrospect, I think Rob should have used some preventive work instead of guarding him after the ball. That was probably our biggest problem."
As well as Leonard played, Weber reminds he still has much he can learn.
"Sacre is one of the better post defenders in the country. When Meyers was in there, we were able to get him the ball. Nine for eleven is pretty effective, and 3 for 4 from the line.
"Sometimes he still floats out on the court. He still doesn't realize the ball's got to go through him on offense. If it does that, and he can score, then the teams have got to make a decision on how to guard him. It was a great game for him."
Richardson continued his torrid early season shooting. He was 4 for 7 from the arc, finishing with 19 points. Paul had a solid all-around game with 13 points, 4 boards and 5 assists. Sam Maniscalco dished out 6 assists to go with 10 points. Griffey led the team with 10 MATTO points thanks to three steals and a block. He also scored 8 points. Abrams handed out 3 assists in 12 minutes of action.
Richardson has been working hard on his game, and it shows. He says he and Paul made an effort to have good games on the same day.
"I told Brandon we've got to get it going together one of these games. Tonight we both played well. Hopefully we can continue that guard play throughout the rest of the season."
Paul is feeling better about himself after an early season slump.
"I think I'm letting the game come to me a little bit more. I'm not forcing things, and I'm making a few more shots than I did early in the season. I like driving to the lane, getting teammates open and getting everyone involved. When I do that, the game comes to me naturally.
"One thing I want to stress is get to the basket, get to the free throw line. Not a lot of guys will be able to guard me off the dribble. I use that to my advantage."
Paul was asked if the win catapults the Illini into the national polls. Echoing his coach's attitude, he's not thinking about poll results yet.
"I think it shows people that we're a force to be reckoned with. We don't care about rankings. We just want to play one game at a time and get better. I'm excited about this win."
Few may have been disappointed in the loss, but he praised the environment and the game itself. Both teams shot over 50% from the field, both dove for loose balls, and it was a clean game despite the fouls.
"It was a great basketball game, great energy. Both teams played hard. I thought Illinois did a nice job of stepping up and making plays at the end."
Few and Weber are friends, but the Gonzaga leader seemed sincere when explaining the difficulty playing a Weber-coached team.
"Nobody in America runs motion offense as good as Bruce does. I've tried to mimic it at our place. He's really as good a coach as there is in the country both offensively and defensively.
"Their motion is so hard to guard. They sprint and they move, they come off multiple screens. And then he teaches his guys how to read the screens. It's difficult to defend; that's why we went to the zone when they didn't have all their shooters in there. It worked for awhile, but that's a tough one when Griffey is at the high post."
Weber said Griffey took his defensive assignment seriously, helping on both ends.
"Tyler missed some open looks, but he led us on the MATTO with 10. He's never had double digits before. He was a little nervous about guarding Harris. Coaches were saying he even watched film on his own. I told him to just play. I thought he let loose and played very hard."
Weber is not surprised by the 8-0 start, best since the 2005-06 season. He knew the team had potential.
"I thought we were capable of doing that. I didn't know we would do it, but I thought we were capable. If you watch them, Brandon and Meyers could be two of the better players in the country. And then D.J. is a solid player, Sam gives us experience, and then we have some competitive guys off the bench.
"We've done what we thought we could, but you have to keep getting better. You can't be satisfied."
St. Bonaventure visits the Assembly Hall Wednesday. The Illini have beaten a ranked opponent for the first time in six games. Now they must learn to maintain after a peak performance.
"Winning Wednesday will be real important...how we respond after a big win. This could be a trap game. It's easier to deal with success than failure. I hope we don't have failure for awhile."