The Fighting Illini had lost six in a row and nine of ten, but they fought Iowa like they had early in the season in accumulating a 15-3 record. The result was an 11 point victory that was as much a relief as anything.
Illini fans no doubt said a few prayers as the Hawkeyes made a game of it second half. But the Illini found a way according to their coach Bruce Weber.
"That's what we are. That's what we should have been, but we forgot about it. We were that at the beginning, but in the middle we forgot who our identity was. And I did too. I just challenged their competitive spirit and competitive character.
"A lot of things have gone wrong obviously. Along the way, we told them they deserved to win for what they went through. But you've got to go earn it. No one's gonna give it to you, no one's gonna feel sorry for you. We challenged them, and they responded. I couldn't be more proud of how they grinded it out."
Illinois scoring leaders Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard were missing from the starting lineup, replaced by Nnanna Egwu and Tyler Griffey. This decision as much a reward for the starters as a punishment for Paul and Leonard.
"I told them that we were gonna have more competitive games in practice. Whoever has the best record will start. You've got to have that competitive spirit every day, or you're not gonna make improvement. That's why those guys started. Meyers and Brandon rose to the occasion after not starting, so I'm happy and pleased with them."
Leonard added detail regarding the week's competitions.
"At the beginning of the week, Coach Weber said we were going to have all competitive drills during practice. They kept track of wins and losses. Unfortunately, me and Brandon were not at the top of the charts. They made it tough on us, there's no doubt about it. The other guys got the wins and deserved to play. I think me and Brandon came in and did a nice job, and the guys that started did a nice job getting the game going."
Paul accepted the demotion gracefully as well.
"It made us want to compete more to help our team. It didn't really matter to us at all. We came in with a lot of energy. Everybody stuck together. Every time they punched, we punched back. I believe that will help us."
Leonard had 22 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Illini. He also had two blocks in a dominating performance against a smaller team. Paul added 17 points, hitting 4-5 from the arc. His three steals helped balance his 4 turnovers.
Leonard agreed it was nice to smile again.
"Man, absolutely. It's a great feeling, no doubt about it. It was a complete team effort. I couldn't be more proud of this team."
Paul hopes the Illini's great effort can be duplicated every game from now on. He is proud the team never gave up on itself.
"You can imagine, the last couple weeks. This time we put our words to action; our actions matched our words. This time we're happy when we came to the locker room. I think the good thing about the losses is that we still stuck together. We didn't point fingers or anything like that. I think our competitive spirit was high this game. Now we've got to look forward to Michigan."
The Illini started slowly with their makeshift lineup. Iowa gained an early 5-0 lead before the Illini went on a 13-0 run. Egwu dunked to open the scoring. Joe Bertrand hit a floater and Tracy Abrams a layin to give the Illini a lead they would never relinquish. They were up 11 at the half.
Iowa came within four at 38-34, but D.J. Richardson responded with a three. Each time the Hawkeyes threatened to make a game of it, the Illini responded in kind. It was a clear-cut victory, one that put a smile on everyone's face leaving the Assembly Hall.
Richardson also hit double figures with 12 points. Sam Maniscalco had his best game in a blue moon, hitting a three and a jumper while handing out four assists. Tracy Abrams dished out three dimes, but Weber felt he needed to use Maniscalso more.
"I thought Tracy wants it so bad, that he tries to do too much at times. I finally had to pull him a couple times. I thought Sammie had a really good effort. This is winding down for him. It hasn't been what he dreamed of, but his heart is really in the right place. He cares, and he wants us to win. I was pleased for him."
Weber was animated throughout the game, working his butt off to help the team pull out a victory. More than anything, he was extremely positive with his players.
"If I can't bring spirit, who can? I've got to be who I am, and they've got to be who they are. It may not be pretty, but we can win games. That's what we've got to do."
Leonard added that Weber has remained positive with the team throughout the losing streak.
"It's easier to do that when you win, but he's always been like that. There's been frustrations throughout this tough stretch. I think he was really positive, especially during the week. He pushed us, but at the end of the day, he remained positive.
"He told us every day after practice that it's gonna come for us. We've been working hard, and we had some things not go our way. Hopefully this is a turning point, and we can make a final run at it."
Weber was especially appreciative of the loud and supportive fans.
"You can't say enough about the crowd. They were into it. It is an important rivalry, and I think people responded to us. I couldn't be more pleased with how the crowd showed up. They stayed in the game and backed us. That was very important."
There was uncertainty what mood the crowd would demonstrate. Some fans are extremely frustrated with the losses and want Weber and his staff fired. Paul said the team needed all the emotional support it could get against Iowa, and the fans came to play on this day.
"The fans were great for us. I think some fans kind of turned, but for the most part we got a lot of love from the fans. We do appreciate them sticking with us. Illini Nation stood up for us tonight."
The Illini have two more regular season games, and they need to win both to have a chance for an NCAA tournament invitation. Michigan invades the Assembly Hall Thursday.
"This is just a start hopefully," Weber stated. "We've got Michigan coming in here. They're good; at times they're really good. We always hope we're better offensively. It's not over."