Illinois coach Bruce Weber contrasted his coaching last year and this.
"Obviously, it was a much better second half. Last year, I was a better first half coach, and this year it appears I'm a better second half coach."
Point guard Demetri McCamey did not start the game, and Weber had a good reason for the demotion.
"Demetri is potentially our best player. But he must demonstrate hard work, heart and hustle on a daily basis. If he can't do that, it is hard to justify starting him to the other players."
McCamey did start the second half and played an important role in getting the team moving. Illinois attacked the Eagles throughout the second half. They pushed the ball, moved to set up teammates, fought for rebounds and clamped down on defense.
A brief flurry at the 14 minute mark of the second half aroused the crowd and set the tone. Jeff Jordan knifed through for a beautiful scoop layup. And then Mike Davis put back a rebound to make the score 45-37. The Illini continued to expand the differential from there.
After scoring less than double digits on Weber's play hard chart the first half, the fired up Illini reversed the trend the second 20 minutes. Perhaps the most impressive display of hustle and team chemistry occurred late in the second half. Calvin Brock ran into the scorer's table trying to save an errant ball. While he failed in his attempt, all four teammates ran over to him and congratulated his effort.
That effort was nonexistent the first half. Illinois seemed tight, hyper and slow. Defense was sporadic and rebounding was weak, especially on the offensive glass.
In contrast, Eastern Washington displayed quick movement and passing, creating open shots for diminutive guard Kenny Valentine and 6'-9" center Brandon Moore. Valentine had 14 points at the break, while Moore added 11. Moore also led all rebounders in the first half with 6.
With the score tied at 35, the Illini began the second half with much more energy. Valentine never scored again, and Moore added one more bucket once the Illini began to double team him. The Eagles were held to just 15 second half points and a 19.2% shooting percentage. And Illinois reversed the rebounding figures, ending with a 7 rebound advantage after trailing by two at the half.
Trent Meacham led the Illini with 18 points. He hit three of his patented three point shots to keep his team competitive in the first half, but possibly his most impressive bucket came at the 10 minute mark of the second half. With the shot clock running down, he split 2 defenders and pushed the ball off the glass to make the score 50-40.
Meacham said the difference in the second half was defensive intensity.
"We were smart in the second half, and we wore them down. We have a lot to work on, but it's something to build on."
Chester Frazier was his usual aggressive self, filling the stat sheet with five rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot. In addition, he scored 13 important points, including 7 of 9 free throws. His two second half baseline drives for two buckets and a free throw kept momentum on Illinois' side.
Frazier said Coach Weber wants him to set an example for the rest of the team. He commented on that and McCamey's benching.
"Coach told us to set the tone for the younger guys, come out hard every night no matter the opponent. Not starting should motivate (McCamey) to come out hard and have more intensity."
Eastern Washington coach Kirk Earlywine needed few words to explain Illinois' advantages in the game.
"Depth, bodies, athletic ability, the difference between the Big Ten and Big Sky."
McCamey contributed 11 points and three assists on the night. Mike Tisdale added 8 points and showed off both his right and left handed hook shots. The Illini worked the ball to him frequently for open looks, but he missed six of his ten shots. Mike Davis added six points, Jordan four and Richard Semrau three.
Tisdale and Semrau both had six rebounds on the night as they shared center duties. For Semrau, it was a career high. Davis and Frazier added five rebounds each. The Illini had more assists than turnovers, 14-13. And they shot 44.4% each half.
Weber summarized the evening.
"It was a good learning experience. We have a lot of things we need to do better."