Perhaps the most significant aspect of the 69-63 win at Vanderbilt was the Illini's ability to pull out the victory at the end. Illinois coach Bruce Weber discussed this reversal of last year's misfortunes at length.
"I anticipated a close game. I thought it was going down to the wire, so I talked about courage. I talked about having the will to win and finding a way to win. I said at a timeout, 'Guys, you're not gonna blow somebody out on the road. In a close game, you've got to make plays.' And that's what we did. I don't know if it helps or not. You always remind them of things that we emphasize, and we hope they start believing it."
Weber broke down the last few minutes and the good plays his Illini made to win the game.
"We didn't score in the last 3 and 1/2 minutes, but we had good shots. We took care of the ball, and obviously we made free throws. I thought the big plays were when we got down 5 and kind of gut-checked. Trent (Meacham) comes off a single-single, doesn't rush it, takes his time. Demetri (McCamey) reads a ball screen and gets to the hoop. Chester (Frazier) shows great composure.
"We could have panicked a couple times during the game, but we didn't. They made that little run right before we made the run. We actually threw the ball away, and I called timeout. After that, we got back together and had some shutouts. We made some big buckets. Obviously, Demetri got a throw up on an out-of-bounds play with 2 seconds on the shot clock. When you make shots like that, it helps."
Weber believes the struggles his players had finishing games last year helped strengthen their resolve to correct that trend this season.
"I don't think there's any doubt (we're tougher from having close games down the stretch last year). We had so many close games that we didn't win, and then finally we won them.
"So really all those guys have been through it and played in some kind of close games. It was Trent, Demetri, Mike Davis, Chester, then Jeffrey Jordan a little bit in the Purdue game. At that time, they were a top 20 team and we find a way to win it in the Big Ten tournament. That experience was a positive thing for us. I hope that helps us down the stretch."
Illinois is young this year, but Vanderbilt is even younger. Having three mature seniors on the team helped Illinois last evening.
"Compared to us they are very young, and they missed some opportunities down the stretch. Where Trent makes a shot, Chester makes a shot. They are both seniors, and that's really a positive."
Hopefully, success in a tight game on the road will help boost the Illini's confidence for the rest of the season.
"I don't think there's any doubt it's a nice confidence boost if we use it the right way. We've proven we can play together. Some people from Vanderbilt said that was the best defense they've seen in a long time. We watched the tape on the way home, and we were pretty good. We had a few breakdowns here and there, but we were very solid defensively. A couple bad turnovers, maybe some early blockouts, but we corrected things as the game went along."
Good game habits begin with practice repetition. The season is still young, and the Illini are still a work in progress.
"We haven't even had 30 days of practices yet. We are at about 23 or 24. We're still breaking down bad habits and creating good habits. You've got a month of practice, a month of nonconference, you get to the Big Ten and you hope you've created some game habits to move forward. I hope we've learned something from it. We're slowly but surely creating some habits that will help us down the road.
"I think we've made some strides lately. As a coach we continue to battle them and not give into them. Make them realize it's a team and we need every little piece. You know, Calvin (Brock) missed some shots, but he took a charge, got a steal.
"Jeffrey Jordan comes in and gets a steal. Dominique (Keller) didn't get many minutes in his first road game, but he was as excited as anybody. It's a win. If you get a minute or two, you do your best and help us. You play a part in our victory."
McCamey had an outstanding game, and Mike Davis continues to provide a spark. But coach Weber wants them to play their best every game. Overall, he sees some positive signs.
"I challenged Demetri right away. Last year, you had big games and then you came back and really didn't do much. Mike Davis has had a double-double back to back, now what can he continue to do? I thought (Mike) Tisdale played a little better and is at a nice stage for down the road. We made some progress. We've got to get better offensively. We missed a lot of open shots, but they didn't get frustrated or rattled."