Fighting Illini Overcome Feisty NIU Huskies

The Fighting Illini basketball team withstood an aggressive Northern Illinois quintet, pulling away for a hard-fought 80-61 victory Tuesday evening at the Assembly Hall. The Huskies were primed for upset and taught the Illini valuable lessons. Freshman Brandon Paul led all scorers, but it was the upperclassmen who saved the day.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber was pleased with all but the last three minutes of the first half. Freshman Brandon Paul's four threes and 20 points were the primary stimulus.

"I thought the first 17 minutes, we played pretty good basketball. It was solid, it was basic. We got stops, we got transition. Obviously, when Brandon plays like that, it sure helps when you've got a guy that can just create and make baskets."

Illini ball handling suffered the last three minutes of the half when Demetri McCamey left with foul trouble. Northern got some steals and quick buckets in transition, two by Brian Hall. And then Hall threw in a half court buzzer beater to reduce the Illini margin to 49-41.

The Huskies continued their aggressive style second half to keep the game close. A Najul Ervin layup made it 49-46, but D.J. Richardson stole the ball and fed McCamey for a dunk to ignite an Illini rally. Mike Tisdale didn't score first half, but his six consecutive points helped extend the lead to a more comfortable 67-50. The Illini coasted from there.

Junior forward Mike Davis grabbed a career high 17 rebounds, including four off the offensive glass, and added 14 points to the effort. His aggressiveness on the boards was essential to the win. He summarized the momentum changes of the game.

"In the first half we jumped out to a big lead, but the last three or four minutes they cut it close. It was a game going into halftime. Second half started out kind of slow. So we had to fight down on D and get some stops, see what this team is made of. That's what we did tonight. It's good for us early in the season."

And Illinois found solace in McCamey's overall game. He pushed the ball frequently in transition, set up teammates with 8 assists and added 10 points, 5 rebounds and 3 steals without forcing his shot. He must cut his four turnovers in half, but it was one of his best overall games. He provided leadership the younger players needed in a tight game.

Tisdale and Dominique Keller added 10 points apiece, and Tyler Griffey chipped in 8 more in 9 minutes. The Illini had an electric 10 blocks on the night, including two each by Davis, Tisdale, Paul and Keller. Weber was pleased with a number of his players.

"Great effort. Not only did Brandon have twenty in a pretty spectacular first half, but he led us on the MATTO with 11. He, D.J. and Alex (Legion) did a great job on Jake Anderson. He's a big scorer, and we limited him. So two games in row we were able to take a good offensive player out of his game.

"Mike Davis' 17 rebounds is his career high. The most impressive thing to me is the 4 offensive rebounds. He got offensive rebounds on a couple plays when we were struggling that definitely helped us.

"We had balance, five guys in double figures. I thought Tyler Griffey and Richard Semrau played well. Last game Tyler struggled a little bit. He gave us some good minutes. Dominique gave us a nice spark.

"Bill Cole did not take a shot, but he played 14 very solid minutes. He was good defensively. He did the little things and didn't try to do too much. I believe when he was in there, we had some pretty good runs."

McCamey preferred to discuss his team rather than his own play.

"I think we're jelling pretty fine. You never know who's gonna score. We've got guys who can score. Different nights it's different people. So as long as we're happy and win basketball games, everybody's jelling and on one page."

NIU coach Ricardo Patton was proud of the way his players hung in the game without their top player Xavier Silas. He also praised the Illini.

"We played a very very talented Illinois team."

Patton, formerly the Colorado coach, was asked his impression of Paul and Richardson.

"I think they're certainly as talented as any freshmen that came through the Big 12 in the 14 years I spent there. They just understand how to play. It's a different level athlete that you see outside of our league. They have a very long future in the game of basketball."

Overall, the Illini played good defense. But NIU used constant penetration to exploit weaknesses that must be corrected by Big 10 season. The Illini haven't worked much on closing out games, so this was good experience for them. Weber knows more improvement is needed.

"So we're learning, its all new. We took another step. Now we have to see if we can take another on Saturday and then Tuesday, and then we go out to Vegas."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories