On Senior Day in Madison, Wisconsin seniors Jordan Taylor and Rob Wilson combined to hit three treys to help ignite a 12-0 run to start the game and end any hope of an Illinois upset before it began. Illini shoulders sagged noticeably in reaction to the onslaught, and they proceeded to play poorly the rest of the half.
Illini coach Bruce Weber was understandably frustrated with his team. The Illini haven't played well much of the Big 10 season, and things haven't gone their way. The only thing they can control is to play hard, but they're not doing it.
"The thing that's diasppointing, we've been through a lot. Whether it's right or wrong, fair or not fair, it shouldn't matter. You've just got to come and play. You've got to have passion and pride and great spirit. We played very tentatively, and they made some shots."
The closest the Illini came was 8 points at 17-9. The first half ended 31-18 hosts, and the Illini had shot only 25% to that point. Players looked for their own shots rather than moving the ball to the open man. The first half result was predictable.
Brandon Paul's statistics appear sound, although looks can be deceiving. He scored 22 points on 8-17 shooting from the field, grabbed 6 rebounds, had two assists and only 3 turnovers. But he had only two free throws prior to a forced three that barely beat the first half buzzer. Up to that time, he appeared to do as much harm as good.
Weber laid into him at halftime.
"We told Brandon, 'You've got to go to the basket. Attack them. Maybe you might get a foul call. Maybe not, but at least you've got to try.'"
Second half, the Illini offense centered around Paul driving the basket. He made some buckets and hit five foul shots, but there was no balance to the offense aside from one penetration where Paul flipped to Meyers Leonard for a resounding dunk. The Illini needed Paul's second half effort, but there was no one to help with the scoring load.
Leonard didn't score until a free throw with 9:21 left in the game, and his first basket wasn't recorded until 4:25 remained. He missed a couple early shots, his teammates had trouble finding him open thanks to strong Jared Berggren defense, and he took himself out of contention with his own self-doubt.
"I started him because of his energy. He's still trying to figure it out, especially when he has to play the four. He gets in the way of Meyers, and Meyers gets in his way."
Bertrand played better upon entering the game. He was the only other Illini in double figures with 10 points.
"Joe played a little stronger. You have to play strong on the road, you can't play tentative."
The Illini cut it to nine points early in the second half, but the Badgers responded immediately. From then on, the best the Illini could do was a ten point margin. Late fouls helped boost the Badgers to their final 70-56 victory.
The Illini conclude the conference season with a 6-12 record, 17-13 overall, after starting 15-3. They now enter the Big 10 tournament, facing Iowa Thursday at 10:30 am. The way the Illini are playing now, Iowa is favored to reverse its loss in Champaign last week.
Can the Illini find a way to play hard with confidence? Can they salvage a little pride and positive memories to sustain them through the summer? Weber will keep trying to get something good out of them.
"We've got to lay it all on the line and see what happens."