The Fighting Illini rallied to escape with a win against a scrappy, determined opponent. But Illinois coach Bruce Weber sounded almost apologetic about it afterward.
"You get a win. It's very gritty down the stretch. We found a way. I thought the last stretch of the game we played much harder.
"First half, they had us on the MATTO play-hard chart. We finally picked up the intensity and did a better job defending, getting loose balls, steals and deflections. When we took the lead on the MATTO, we won the game."
The Illini broke out to a quick 10-3 lead, and it looked like a route was on. But Cornell started raining threes, pulling out to a 23-14 advantage. The Illini rallied to produce a tie at halftime, but there was no joy in Mudville.
"We're not very fluid offensively. I thought the first half, we had some good possessions attacking the zone. Our young guys coming off the bench are not very sure what they're doing yet and don't know what to look for. Against man, we have to get some movement. We had some standing around.
"I think we're at a point where we're thinking too much. Just be patient, move the ball and wait for good things to happen."
Cornell regained a second half lead, forcing the Illini to play from behind. Each time the Illini tied the game, the Big Red went back in front. It looked like another loss for the home team until upperclassmen took over.
Brandon Paul hit a three and a dribble-drive jumper, D.J. Richardson hit a jumper, and Sam Maniscalco, who had six assists without a turnover, made two free throws to reverse a two point deficit and gain a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"At the end we did find a way to win. It was huge. They weren't gonna back down. Any time you get a team with local players that come here with all their family and friends, they're gonna play at a high level. They made some plays and put some heat on us. To our credit, we didn't fold. We grinded it out and found a way to win."
Part of the problem may have been residual self-doubt from the UNLV game two days previously. The Illini needed a good dose of confidence after that debacle, but Cornell began to remind of the previous failure. The result was predictable according to Weber.
"I think once Cornell started making shots, we definitely got tight. They got the lead, the crowd is dead silent, all of a sudden we're tight."
Fortunately, the Illini got big second halves from Paul and Richardson, and they got an outstanding game from Meyers Leonard. Paul scored all but two of his 15 points in the second half while adding three assists and four rebounds. He came through when needed but knows the Illini need to play better.
"We found a way to win. We grinded it out. Obviously, we're not content with the way we played. We've got to get back to practice and work on things. We didn't come out with as much fire as we wanted to, but we won the game. We've still got to get better."
Richardson continues to be the most consistent Illini. He hit 5 of 10 three point shots on his way to a 17 point effort. He also dished out 3 assists and provided necessary leadership. He said the Illini crowd came through for them despite times when boos might have replaced cheers.
"We've got to thank the crowd. They stuck with us to the end. The crowd was a big key tonight. They helped us out with the energy, and then Brandon and the upperclassmen made some big shots for us."
Weber is proud of the Peoria junior.
"He's been very confident and has been our most consistent guy. He's been very focused. I think he went so hard he was cramping at the end and had a headache. He's been our leader, our most consistent guy, our most focused guy. He's grown up a lot."
Leonard had to leave the game briefly in the second half after a hip to his back. He said he also was hit in the mouth and elbowed in the neck as teams continue to use physical means to limit his production. Despite that, he almost had a double-double by halftime, coming one rebound short. Weber knows his prodigy can still make major improvements, but he realizes Leonard was key to the win.
"Obviously he had a good night. I think he got a little tired at the end of the first half. He's got to be more competent defensively. He needs to get out on people; he's mobile enough, he can guard people.
"I think he's a little tentative on the defensive end, not around the basket but out on the court. People are isoing him, picking-and-popping and doing some things where he has to make some decisions. He's got to get better there. But 19 and 16 and three blocks obviously saved us."
Cornell coach Bill Courtney knew his team had a chance to win and was disappointed it couldn't finish. But he also knew who to credit from the winning team.
"You've got to give those guys a lot of credit, in particular Leonard, Richardson and Paul. They're big-time players, and they made big-time plays down the stretch. That's what good teams do, they find a way to win. I thought Illinois did that tonight. But I was definitely proud of the way our guys fought tonight."
The Illini again received minimal production from their bench except for the energy and defensive play of Tracy Abrams. But no bench player scored. Weber needs more help than he's getting.
"They've got to give us energy; don't worry about scoring. Just give us energy. They don't have to make a play. It would help if the other guys would play well while they're in.
"Have a better concept of the offense, when to look for someone, when to score. They all get stagnant and don't know what to do. They've got to be big for us. They've got to give us something. They probably need to go home for the holidays and get away from it, come back with a fresh thought."
The Illinii must make a big leap in the next couple days. Otherwise, Missouri may run them out of the gym at the Bragging Rights game Thursday.
"We found a way to respond, but if we play this way against Missouri, it could be a long night for us," Weber understates. "We're gonna have to hopefully play a little looser, be aggressive and be a little sharper."