With 11 minutes left in the game, the Illini had an 8 point lead over the Hoosiers, but Indiana was not going to go away quietly. By the time 6 minutes were left in the game, the Hoosiers had closed the lead to 2 points, and the Illini were staring at another opponent who had wiped out their second half lead and stolen their momentum.
But this time, it was the Hoosiers who blinked.
The Illini (15-7, 3-4 in the Big 10) used suffocating defense and just enough offense to defeat Indiana (14-5, 4-2) by a final score of 51-43, and regain a bit of momentum not only in the Big 10 race, but for an NCAA tournament bid resume that had no "signature" wins to date.
"It's a survival win," said Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. "This was an old-fashioned, Big 10, border war game."
Illinois, who has given up late leads in 3 of their last 4 losses, took care of business by going on a 10-0 run after the Hoosiers drew within 2 at 39-37. The Illini have struggled with the lack of a go-to player in the clutch, but tonight they took turns putting the Hoosiers away. A Warren Carter jumper, a pair of free throws by Rich McBride, a resounding dunk by Shaun Pruitt (off a feed from Chester Frazier with less than 5 seconds left on the shot clock), a free throw by Frazier, a pair of free throws by Jamar Smith, and another free throw by Frazier extended the lead to 12 points with 34 seconds left.
Intensifying the war was the undercurrent of Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson's first visit to Illinois since the Eric Gordon recruiting uproar. The Illini fans made it clear that this was no ordinary game in their eyes, with resounding boos every time Sampson entered or exited the arena. The Orange Krush were well prepared for Sampson as well, with a variety of chants focused on the recruiting violations that Sampson was found guilty of at Oklahoma.
The players and coaches all downplayed the Gordon angle. "I didn't bring it up one time to them," said Weber. "We have so many other issues, I'll be honest, I don't think it mattered." Coach never once brought it up at all," added Carter. "It was just Indiana against Illinois tonight-no extracurricular stuff." Sampson echoed the sentiments, saying "It's not nearly as big a deal as you guys (the media) make it out to be. Illinois' team was better than our team tonight-that was the story."
The Illini defense was certainly better on Tuesday. Illinois held Indiana's dangerous outside game in check-the Hoosiers, who had been shooting almost 42% from behind the arc, were held to 4-17 from deep (23.5%), including two in the last 30 seconds of the game. Illinois also managed to keep IU's leading scorer and rebounder DJ White under control, holding him to 12 points and 8 rebounds.
White was guarded most of the game by Pruitt, who was a game time question mark due to a MCL strain suffered at the end of the Wisconsin game last Saturday. Pruitt showed little sign of injury, logging 32 minutes while scoring 10 points and pulling down a team-high 13 rebounds, 4 on the offensive end.
"At first it was kind of sore and kind of stiff," said Pruitt. "I guess the adrenaline took over. I just wanted to win so bad. I've played in worse pain than this, so it wasn't as bad as I thought." "Shaun did a great job playing post d(efense) on White," added McBride. "They look for him a lot, and he's a great player."
Indiana started the game looking like they would shoot Illinois right out of the building, making 5 of their first 7 shots and running out to a 7 point lead early in the game. But Illinois came back on the strength of an incredible defensive run, holding the Hoosiers without a field goal for almost 12 minutes in the first half. "We came out a little flat. At the (first TV) timeout coach got at us a little bit, and we made some adjustments," said McBride. After falling behind 11-4 in the first 4 minutes, the Illini outscored Indiana 19-12 the rest of the half, and went into the locker room tied with the Hoosiers 23-23.
"Their defense was good-they've been a good defensive team all year," said Sampson. "I didn't think our offense was very good. I didn't like our identity tonight. We're the kind of team that if we don't play with a chip on our shoulder, and play with an edge, we're not very good. I didn't see us play with an edge."
McBride led the team in scoring with 15 points, including back to back 3's early in the second half that gave the Illini an 8 point lead and got the sellout crowd on it's feet. Warren Carter added 14. For the first time all season, the Illini got no production from the bench, with Marcus Arnold, Trent Meacham, Calvin Brock, and Brian Carlwell all held scoreless. Carlwell did log a rebound and a steal.