Illini Scratch And Claw Way To Victory

Illinois scored the last ten points of the game to pull away from the feisty Minnesota Gophers Thursday night in the Assembly Hall, 52-41. Mike Davis garnered another double-double to lead the Illini. The win gives the Illini an 11-5 audit in the Big Ten going into their big matchup with conference leader Michigan State on Senior Day Sunday.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber was both happy and relieved afterward.

"It was a huge win for us. I don't think our players understand, I don't think our fans understand because you've got a very tough stretch coming up. But just to get yourself to 23 (wins), for sure in the top 5 (in conference), without the pressure of winning the last two games.

"I just can't be more happy. You wish it was prettier, but that's not what our league's about. It's about defending, preparation, playing hard. If you can't do that, you're not going to be successful."

The nature of the game was defense. The physicality of the game made every possession a dogfight. Weber knew it was coming.

"It was a physical game, and you adjust to it. There were very few free throws. If you want to score, you're gonna have to go through people to get it in. Every game is a little different, and you have to adjust to it. At least we have enough fight and fire in us to adjust to get a victory."

Minnesota is fighting for an NCAA tourney berth, and they were highly focused throughout. Gopher coach Tubby Smith preaches aggressive defense, and his troops were ready to run through walls for him.

"They came ready to play," Weber understated. "I told the guys today, up there they took us into the alley and beat our butts, and beat us bad. They came in with the same type of attitude and determination, and we weren't ready for it at the beginning. That's why they jumped on us. I think our guys were waiting for fouls and things to go their way. To our guys' credit, we stood up and started to battle."

Fortunately, the Illini had one of their better defensive efforts as well. Smith gave Illinois credit.

"We commend Illinois. Both teams were battling. We shot it very poorly because of their defense. I thought we had a good game plan coming in, but we just couldn't execute. Twenty turnovers makes for a bad night for us. And combine that with some bad shooting, we sort of lost."

Illini guard Chester Frazier, possibly the best defender in the league this year, was credited with zero fouls but admitted to three or four.

"That was a real physical game. Their backs were against the wall, and they needed this win tonight. So they came out and fought for it.

"It was an ugly game. I don't think either team shot it particularly well. But we made plays when it counted. And I think we took advantage of their pressure and turned them into baskets late. That and getting stops at the end was what won the game."

Mike Davis scored 14 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead the Illini. He now has 8 double-doubles on the season, and he has scored double digits in 6 of his last 7 games.

Trent Meacham and Demetri McCamey joined him in double figures with 13 and 10 respectively. Frazier played his typical overall game with 5 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds and 4 steals besides helping hold Gopher guards Lawrence Westbrook and Al Nolen to 2-15 shooting. Dominique Keller grabbed 5 rebounds and Calvin Brock had four important steals off the bench.

Illinois took a 28-23 lead into halftime despite falling behind early. Weber provided the game highlights.

"I think it was important we get the lead right at half. And the other big key, Mike Davis gets a couple back-to-back shots, Demetri and Trent hit threes, and now we get the nice lead. And then we shut them out.

"We had two 6 minute stretches where they didn't score. I think they were two for 41 from outside the paint. Obviously, we didn't do a good job inside the paint, and the rebounding wasn't very good. But we did enough with our perimeter defense to protect the lead. And to win a game that was very hard fought."

Coach Weber took time in the postgame press conference to lambast the national media who are claiming the Big 10 is an inferior league because it can't score points and isn't as fun to watch as some other leagues. Weber became intense as he defended the Big 10 and demanded the media to do their homework.

"I'm sick of hearing all that junk. Go look at the scores in nonconference games. Look at Michigan State and Kansas. Look at us against Missouri. It's BS guys. Go look at that stuff. Jim Dutcher ripped us in the Minneapolis paper, not only us but the Big 10. He's a Big 10 guy.

"We prepare. We play our butts off. I'm sick of all that stuff. You've got to do your talking on the court. You've got to do your talking in the tournament. That's when we'll find out what it's about. But if you do your homework, go look at the nonconference. We beat teams. Sorry for getting angry. But I'm sick of hearing it, to be honest.

"It's just how it's called. Those refs will be doing a Big East game tomorrow. They do SEC, they do ACC. They say it's the style of play. We prepare, we guard. Every possession means something. And this goes back to Coach Keady, Coach Knight, Coach Heathcote. It's just how it has been in our league.

"Tubby and those guys play their butts off. They're fighting, scrapping, guarding. They're not giving in. But when we were out of the league, we were all right. We did that in the nonconference, and now we've got to back it up in the tournament. Then we'll see."

For Weber, the win ties Doug Mills for third all-time in coaching victories at Illinois with 151. And for the 23-6 Illini, it is a chance to get on a winning streak prior to the NCAA tournament and send seniors Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham, Calvin Brock and C.J. Jackson out on a positive note.

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