Illinois coach Bruce Weber was pleasantly surprised and pleased how well his team played.
"I was definitely excited about how we played with high energy. We talked about that before the game. We had no energy, no excitement against Quincy. Today, the whole thing was energy, excitement, and get off to an early start. We did all those things.
"We kept the crowd into it. It was a tremendous crowd. The fans were great, and we kept them excited for most of the game. If we hadn't gone zone and took the air out of the momentum, it was a tremendous game. It was definitely real positive for the opener."
Brandon Paul set the tone for the game early with an aggressive penetration and dish to Mike Tisdale for a resounding dunk. Paul then scored 8 of the next 10 points and 11 of the first 21 as the Illini bolted out to a lead. Paul also scored 8 of the first 13 points in the second half to spoil any Cougar upset hopes.
Paul's 22 points were the most any Illini freshman has scored in his debut, topping Deon Thomas by a point. He spoke like a veteran afterward.
"It was a fun game. I think I played really well. We wanted to come out with a lot of energy, and I think we all came out really excited to play. I just wanted to come out and put points on the board and take the opportunity when it came."
His nervousness didn't last long.
"It was a typical first game. I had a little butterflies, but after the first two plays, we just went after it. All the butterflies just came out, and I had a lot of confidence."
Weber described his young prodigy.
"He's not really emotional. He doesn't get too excited. I need a little more intensity from him some times. He did a nice job of not letting (Mark) Yelovich get going. He really did a good job. He has length, he has good athletic ability, so we think he can eventually be a defensive stopper. Brandon's not afraid to put it up. We've just got to keep him inside the NBA three."
Guard D.J. Richardson joined Paul in the starting lineup. He played despite hyperextending his elbow yesterday.
"Yesterday at practice, Jeff (Jordan) was coming off a screen, and my elbow got caught between him and Rich (Semrau)" Richardson remembered. "I stretched the ligaments, so it's just a strain."
With his shooting elbow smarting, he took only five shots. But he made three and added 8 free throws to second Paul in scoring with 14. He added four assists and had no turnovers in 20 minutes of action. Afterward, SIU-Edwardsville coach Lennox Forrester praised Richardson. He watched him grow up in Peoria while an assistant at Bradley.
"I knew those guys were good. They don't play like freshmen, especially D.J. Richardson. He's really good. He's a senior, the way he's playing. We had our best defender on him just to slow him down because of his aggressiveness."
What did Forrester learn from the game?
"We learned that Illinois is pretty good. They're a talented team. They shoot very very well, they rebound well. They have big bodies, and we're just not there yet. They have big bodies, and we're just not there yet. We couldn't compete with that."
Forrester felt Illinois' transition was the most impressive aspect of its game.
"We talk about transition and not turning the ball over. Even when we made shots, which wasn't alot, (Demetri) McCamey was right down in our throat again. And then they had some easy baskets, even off a made basket. Their tempo, their athleticism was very impressive. And definitely shooting the basketball. It was incredible how well they shoot the ball."
The game was never in doubt as the Illini raced to an early lead and never looked back. It was 47-22 at the half, and the Illini stretched the lead to 78-41 before they went to a zone and the Cougars cut the margin to 82-59. That was the closest they would get.
The Illini shot 55.4% for the game, while holding the Cougars to 34.5%. They also won the battle of the boards by 11 and had only 9 turnovers.
Ten Illini played 11 or more minutes, and 11 of the 12 who saw action scored. Mike Davis had his tenth career double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds including three off the offensive glass. McCamey added 11 points and 7 assists, while Tisdale scored 8 points, pulled down 6 rebounds and had three blocked shots.
Next up is Northern Illinois Tuesday night.