It is great to win and inch closer to an NCAA bid, but the resiliency of the team is of special value to Illinois coach Bruce Weber. The Illini have now followed all six of their losses with victories.
"The best thing is their attitude and effort today. They played like they wanted to win. And that was so important to get going."
Weber provided a brief synopsis of the action.
"We started out really well. They made a run to tie it. Demetri (McCamey) hit a big shot, and we kept them some distance from us.
"The second half, we go up again, they cut it back down. We were playing on their home court, and we took a big knockout punch the other night. A lot of chances (to fail) today, but we were able to sustain. Coach (Wayne) McClain said 'Get up off the mat, guys. If you don't, you can't get in the fight.' So we did."
Illinois always seemed to have answers for every OSU run. After scoring 16 points in the first 6 minutes, one more than they scored the entire first half against Penn State, Ohio State went on a six point run to reduce the deficit to two points. But the Illini followed with a 6 point run of their own.
The Buckeyes then put together another 6 point run to tie the game 24-24, but the Illini followed with another 6 point run to maintain the dominant position. The Illini led 32-27 at the break.
Jon Diebler opened the second half with a three to cut the margin to two points, but Illinois again countered. A three by Trent Meacham, a Mike Tisdale slam on a nice feed from Demetri McCamey, a Mike Davis jumper and a Tisdale baseline swish on a feed from McCamey put the lead back up to 41-34 and kept the Buckeyes from gaining confidence. Weber was pleased with the timing of Illini surges.
"The first five minutes of the game are key, as are the last five minutes of the half and the first five minutes of the second half. Most games are determined by what you do then. We definitely dominated that, getting margins that when they made runs we were able to sustain."
Illinois played great defense most of the game, limiting Ohio State to 33% shooting the first half and their star Evan Turner to two points. And in direct contrast to last Wednesday, they were on fire against the OSU zone.
"We did a good job against their zone. Obviously, we shot a little bit better; 58% is pretty good. Our defense broke down late, and we were giving them too many easy baskets. But we were up by two at the end, and that's all that really matters."
There were several heroes for the Illini. In fact, their entire starting five deserves praise as they played most of the way with little rest. Weber explained why afterward.
"Our bench didn't play a lot. Because of the zone, we felt we could stick with the guys who are good against the zone. That's our starting five."
Weber praised the balance of the offense. Davis was the scoring leader with 22 points, mostly on jumpers around the free throw line as he repeatedly flashed into open areas. Mike added 8 rebounds as well. Meacham added 17 points and 6 assists.
McCamey handed out 7 assists to go with 15 points. Tisdale provided 8 points and 6 rebounds, and Chester Frazier totaled 6 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in addition to his excellent defense. Each one of these Illini hit big shots at pivotal times in the game to keep the Buckeyes at bay.
In fact, Frazier hit two big threes at important times. With the shot clock running down under the 7 minute mark, he popped an NBA range three to give Illinois a 58-48 lead. And Meacham found his shooting touch again, making four threes including a dagger to give the Illini a 65-57 lead. Overall, Illinois was an impressive 9 of 17 from the three point line.
Weber was especially happy for Frazier, who has sacrificed scoring all year to help in other areas.
"Chester deserves it. He's such a good kid. Up to that point, he had only shot the ball one time in the whole game. It's good for him to come out with some big baskets."
Ohio State pressured the Illini at the end by letting their star Turner go one-on-one off a ball screen at the top of the circle. He drove repeatedly into the lane for layups and foul shots to bring the Buckeyes back. Finally, the Illini decided to switch defensively with Davis stepping in to stop Turner's penetration.
"Turner was just taking us," Weber stated. "Chester's got three fouls, Mike Tisdale's got four, and Mike Davis has three. We finally said let's switch it, and they didn't get a shot off for about 12 seconds."
Weber likes how his team rises up and plays well after a tough loss. However, he continues to worry about how the Illini deal with success.
"That's something I've thought about. Let's give the kids credit. If we have a weakness besides inside presence, screening and physical play, I don't think we deal with success as well as we need to.
"I'm just gonna have to stay on them. I told them I hate always having to be tough and mean, screaming and yelling, but I have to. I go home and I'm (a wreck). But if that's the only way they can react, I'm gonna have to do it all the time."
Illinois now has two home games before finishing the regular season at Penn State. Weber wants to see the Illini send his seniors out in style.
"Now we return home. You hope we have learned our lessons, but there's no guarantee. The biggest thing is, let's let the seniors go out on a positive note. Let's have the same effort at home against Minnesota Thursday night and then Michigan State on Sunday.
"I gave them a goal of 24 (wins), and we're right there. The thing is, you can't let your guard down. I'll be happy today, and I cheered them and hugged them. But I have to come back Thursday and get the mean face on and get after them."