Quincy bolted to a quick 22-15 lead. The Illini stood around the perimeter of a packed-in defense, missing threes and failing to attack the boards. At one point, the Illini had made only 4 of 15 shots while the Hawks were exploiting a passive UI defense with their team concept. Illinois coach Bruce Weber was not surprised by the early play.
"I talked yesterday about playing with a passion. As a coach, obviously talent is important. But a talented player who has no passion doesn't do you any good. I did that because I knew it's tough for our guys, especially the older guys, to get motivated.
"You've got to play every day. Whether it's practice or who you're playing, you have an opportunity and you have to have a right mental preparation. Obviously, we didn't have great mental preparation to be ready to play.
"They have older guys who are all Division I players. A lot of them are transfers. They have quickness, undersized guys who are tough for us to guard. They spread us. We had to back down a little bit to contain the dribble."
Weber hopes the Illini benefit from their struggles.
"We haven't gone against this kind of defense. We didn't get the ball in, we didn't cut through the defense or screen. We just stood out on top and didn't attack it. You've got to play a lot of different teams and different styles. This will be a good learning point for our team. Hopefully some of the guys will have a little better concentration, intensity and focus as we approach the regular season games."
The Illini began to find the range to take a 37-30 lead into the break. Freshmen guards Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson each made two threes, freshman forward Tyler Griffey hit a baseline jumber, and Alex Legion laid in a rebound for the seven point margin.
The UI came out more intense in the second half, running and cutting better while stepping up on the defensive end. But Quincy brought in freshman Andrew Kueker, and he started his own scoring streak. He scored 16 points on the night, all in the second half. His drive and free throw reduced the margin to a nervous 54-53.
Center Mike Tisdale hit a turnaround, Paul hit another three, and point guard Demetri McCamey converted two free throws. It was 61-56 when Richardson went on his spree. Showing no nervousness, he calmly sank two straight threes and then penetrated past an extended defense for a bank laying. The Hawks never threatened again.
Weber praised Richardson afterward.
"He's had his moments where he's pretty productive. He can get some points. The thing I think that has been the most impressive from the last two years is his shooting of the threes. He's gotten better.
"He's always been someone who can flash to the basket. He has that nice little pull-up. He shoots the ball with a lot of confidence. He struggled the last 4-5 days in practice, but tonight he almost saved us.
"He just wants to win. He's a very unselfish kid. He's not thinking about scoring. He has a great attitude. He comes every day and practices his butt off. He's kind of gotten into this turnover bug, and we're trying to ease the pressure on him. He's more worried about playing point guard than anything. Today with Jeff and Demetri, he got to just run down the court."
Richardson provided his own summary.
"I just took open shots. It was there, so I took them. I knew we needed them. That's what I think we need, players willing to take open shots. I want to be a defensive stopper, but I also want to show people I can do other things besides play defense."
He doesn't feel he needs to be the savior every night.
"I think my role is just great. I'm in a perfect spot. We have a team full of all-stars. Anybody is expected to put up 20+ points a night. We know our roles and what we have to do."
Joining Richardson in double figures were Legion with 12, Paul with 11 and Tisdale with 10 and five boards. Bill Cole and McCamey each had nine points. McCamey added seven assists and was seconded by Jeff Jordan and Richardson with four each. The Illini were outrebounded by the smaller Hawks.
Legion put up 10 shots in just 13 minutes and needs to learn when not to shoot. Tisdale made all four of his shots, leading one to conclude he needs the ball more. But he feels it was more the product of circumstance.
"I think we're all right. They were packed in there. It was tough to get the ball inside. We had D.J. making shots, Alex made some shots. I think once the teams have a little more size, it will be easier to get the ball inside just because it won't be packed in there like a zone.
"We've got some guards that can get to the basket and push the ball. D.J. and Brandon, Demetri is pushing it. That's good for us because it puts pressure on the defense.
"Me and Mike Davis step out a little bit, so we're not always sitting in there clogging the lane. With us pushing the ball down the court, we're not letting the defense get back and set. So I think if we continue to do that, we'll be successful."
Mike Davis had only four points Sunday. None of his six boards were off the offensive glass. He did have two blocks and two steals, allowing him to lead the MATTO play hard chart. But Weber was disappointed in his play.
"He's got to be more ready to play. Go to the glass and run the court. He should get a runout, he should get a tip dunk, be active. He's so mobile, so athletic. I don't think he always uses his tools. We had a practice a couple days ago where he was the best player on the court. Why don't you do it every day?"
Illinois made plenty of mistakes and still won. Tisdale believes Quincy provided the Illini a valuable opportunity.
"It's always good to have a team come in here and challenge you. Especially for the young guys. Playing in a close game like that, seeing what they can do. Making the old guys step up. It was good to get some close game experience. In the end we just kind of took over."
Hopefully, there will be renewed excitement Friday when SIU-Edwardsville visits the Assembly Hall to begin the season. That and more practice time are needed if the Illini wish to improve on last season's record.