Illinois coach Bruce Weber saw one of his preseason goals completed with this victory.
"I challenged them from the beginning of the season about expectations. I don't think anyone thought we would be second in the Big 10 and get 24 wins. And then when Chester went down, its human nature to think we aren't going to play well. So I challenged them to step up, take a major step and be special. We set a goal of 24 wins. Now we need to get greedy and see if we can keep it going."
Chester Frazier has been the emotional leader of the team all year, and this was the first time the Illini had to play without him. Weber explained the nature of Chester's injury and his possible availability for the NCAA Tournament next week.
"He sustained a hand injury in practice Wednesday. It was just a freak thing. It was very sad for him and sad for our kids. After meeting with the hand specialist, the only way we could get him back next week was a minor surgery that he went through yesterday. (Pins were inserted) to make it stay in place.
"He came with us on the trip, and he even asked to play tonight. Obviously, we weren't gonna let him do that. But we fully anticipate he'll be back with us next week, wherever we are.
"If it was any other kid, I'd say there's no chance of him playing. He's a little out of the box sometimes. You guys have no idea what he's played through. He's played when many people wouldn't play, and he's practiced when many people wouldn't practice. If he can do it, he'll be out there."
Even without playing, Frazier had a major influence on the game. In fact, the players dedicated their effort to him.
"Before the game, Chester came to my room," Mike Davis explained. "He told me, 'Go out there and play hard, and everything will take care of itself.' He told us to play hard defense, and the offense would take care of itself. That's what I did tonight. I played a good game, and my teammates came through and we came away with a victory."
Fellow senior Trent Meacham was emotional afterward, remembering Chester's influence.
"I went to his apartment Thursday night, and he was already talking about what we need to do. These guys have to step up, everybody's got to step up. He's been a coach to us all season, and that just continued."
Calvin Brock replaced Frazier in the starting lineup and was given the assignment of defending Michigan star Manny Harris. He played great and said Chester helped him with preparation.
"He's definitely positive about the situation. He provided a lot of energy for us on the bench tonight. He just makes everybody play harder, and we feed off his energy.
"Coach and Chester told me to get into him, try to make him put the ball on the floor and not let him square me up and shoot threes on me. So that's what I tried to do, and I had great help from my teammates.
"I think I played decent defense on Manny, but I'd like to thank my teammates. He drove by me a couple times, but my teammates were there to stop him. It was just great defense by everyone out there."
Illinois led by just 25-24 at the half as neither team could gain more than a four point advantage. But the Illini came out on fire in the second stanza, forcing turnovers and bad shots by the Wolverines while shooting 62% to break out to a decisive 50-31 lead.
Illinois had runs of 6 and 13 points in their second half ambush. Trent Meacham regained much-needed confidence by draining two threes on either side of 3 free throws to spark the effort. Mike Davis had a steal and driving layup, Mike Tisdale popped three jumpers, while Davis and Calvin Brock made transition layups off feeds from McCamey and Jeff Jordan respectively.
Weber explained the second half surge.
"We talked (at halftime) about finishing the job. I think they tired a little bit. It's hard to play back to back. But I thought our defensive intensity was so good to start the second half. We got great energy from the bench. And Brock did a great job on Manny. Demetri bumped his leg and Jeffrey stepped it up. And then we made big shots. That's a big deal."
Michigan responded with a 13 point run of their own to pull within 7 points at 54-47 before the Illini clamped down to finish off the victory. Davis' turnaround baseline jumper stopped the surge, and McCamey and Brock added two free throws apiece in the last minute to keep Michigan at bay.
Brock held Harris to 9 points on the night on 3-11 shooting. Wolverine star DeShawn Sims, who popped for 27 points in yesterday's blowout of Iowa, struggled all night as well against Illini post players, especially Mike Tisdale. He did score 15, but he needed 19 shots for his 6 field goals.
Weber singled out the bench for special praise.
"The guys off the bench took the opportunity and made the most of it. Calvin's very good defense on Harris really frustrated him. Jeffrey Jordan came in and gave us good minutes. Dominique (Keller), Alex (Legion) came in and made a couple plays. In the second half, our defensive intensity really picked up. I think they got tired or frustrated or both."
Davis led the Illini with 22 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks. McCamey added 12 points, six rebounds and 2 assists. Meacham scored 10. Brock and Tisdale added six points each, and they pulled down 5 and 6 rebounds respectively.
Now, Illinois faces Purdue in the semifinals Saturday afternoon, the Boilermakers having trounced Penn State. Purdue will be gunning for the Illini after getting swept in the regular season. But as Weber says...
"We get to live for another day."