Illinois needed a close contest to refine its skills, and Wofford gave it to them. Coach Bruce Weber was impressed with the Terriers.
"I knew they were a good team, but I didn't think they were that good to be honest. They shot it so well early with some long range bombs. They got us spread out. They're an older team, they execute, they pick you apart and do a lot of different things. And they make shots.
"To our kids' credit, we didn't panic. We did pick it up defensively and made them earn it. I think they're gonna win a bunch of games in their league if they stay healthy."
The Terriers spread the Illini out and ran their offense to perfection the first half. They appeared determined to win, and they played with confidence. Every time the Illini came close, Wofford went on another spurt. It was an 8 point advantage at 26-18 when Junior Salters drained a three.
The Illini started finding big Mike Tisdale inside for short hooks to close the gap, but Salters was on fire. It was 32-25 when D.J. Richardson hit two threes and Demetri McCamey hit a three and one. Another Salters three put the Terriers back on top before Mike Davis tied it with two free throws. McCamey threw in another bomb at the buzzer to give the Illini a hard-earned 42-39 lead at the half.
Wofford continued to fight in the second half, but strong Illini shooting and a Terrier shooting slump gave the Illini a lead they would never relinquish. Afterward, Wofford coach Mike Young praised the Illini and his own team."We ran out of steam. We made 8 threes the first half. You're gonna cool off a little bit. Their size and talent takes over a little bit. We continued to get great shots, but we didn't shoot it as well second half.
"We've got a good basketball team, and we have great respect for Bruce's bunch. Those two rookies don't play like freshmen. They are tough, they make shots, and their athleticism is a sight to behold. They don't play like freshmen.
"We had a hard time matching up with Tisdale. And then Mike Davis, wow what a really nice player. I think Bruce will win a lot of games and could go a long way in March."
Davis summed up the Illini's first half struggles.
"They were making shots, we were missing shots. First half, Salters was hot. They shot 80% for awhile. We didn't crash the offensive boards very well on our side either. Constant rebounding is something we've got to work on for Vegas."Defense was another problem. Wofford was using effective screens to free player for open looks, and the Illini appeared confused. Second half was a different story according to McCamey.
"We picked up the intensity and started playing together and talking more. That helped us out. We used the crowd to our advantage. We got steals, we got putbacks."
McCamey pushed the ball repeatedly for transition points, and the Illini entered the bonus with 12:17 left in the game. McCamey ignited the crowd with a superlative drive in which he rotated the ball behind his back to avoid a defender before hitting a reverse layup to make the score 58-50. Davis then got hot to help increase the margin of victory.
The Illini shot a sizzling 57.1% both from the field and from three for the game. Richardson hit 5 of 6 threes to tie his season high with 15 points. He also was credited with 3 assists. McCamey hit 3 of 6 threes and 6 of 8 free throws as part of his 21 points. He sometimes makes crazy decisions, but he also makes plays. Tisdale had his best game so far with 12 points. Davis ended with 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Weber discussed his players' efforts.
"Tisdale made some nice plays. D.J. saved us in the first half. Mike Davis started slow but had a good finish, 4-4 I think in the second half and gets another double-double. Demetri made some big plays. He makes you mad too sometimes. Value the ball and make basic plays. Hopefully he can learn that.
"I probably didn't use the bench enough. Defensively, some of them struggle. With all the things they ran, I probably didn't have the trust and confidence in them on the defensive end."
While the freshmen led the Illini in three early blowout games, it was the upperclassmen who stepped up when needed against Wofford.
"The juniors have to take their game to another level," Weber reminds. "They've got to be the guys that are leading the wagon, and let the freshmen jump on for the ride. And then off and on they can have big games.
"I got on Tisdale pretty bad yesterday. He's been struggling and not really getting much done. It was good for him to get going. And Mike Davis a year ago, missing all those shots early, he might have gone into the tank. But he's grown up a little bit.
"And Demetri made some errors and some bad decisions, but he did come back and make some good plays when it really counted that made a difference in the game. It was good to see that those guys could carry the load. And with Jeff Jordan and Billy Cole, all five juniors were a part of it."
The Illini leave Wednesday for Las Vegas. They play Utah Friday night and either Bradley or Oklahoma State Saturday night. And then next Wednesday they travel to Clemson for what could be a tremendous battle as part of the Big 10-ACC Challenge. Weber acknowledged the challenge ahead.
"This is a big 8 day stretch for us. The bench will be very important. We've got to find some defensive stoppers."