Illinois played like a team without a future in the first half. Down 47-27 at halftime, a dejected Bruce Weber pleaded with his team to fight back. That is exactly what they did.
"I'll be honest, I'm amazed," Weber bubbled afterward. "I just told them at halftime, 'Guys, all I want you to do is at least compete.' We embarrassed ourselves first half, and they took it to us. And I said, 'You never know, they may come out a little lackadasical.' And they did. To our credit, we took advantage of it."
Playing inspired the ball, the Illini whittled away at the lead. Remembering how Utah overcame a big Illini second half lead in Las Vegas, the Illini players began to play team ball and take the fight to the Tigers according to Mike Tisdale.
"We showed a lot of heart out there. A lot of guys stepped up. The first half we weren't pushing the press or anything. But we came out second half and we were fired up ready to go."
Jerai Grant hit a short jumper to give Clemson its biggest lead 51-28 early in the second half. The Illini then went to a zone. Alternating between zone and man to man from then on, the Illini disrupted the Tigers' momentum according to Weber.
"I told the coaches I thought we needed to, just as a change of pace. Plus, they come out of timeouts and usually run a set play. So that kind of took it away. They did a little bit against the zone, but it broke their momentum. Plus, we scored and it kept them out of transition."
D.J. Richardson hit a three and Brandon Paul two more to narrow the lead. Mike Davis and Tisdale started making plays, getting open for short jumpers on pick and pops and playing better defensively and on the glass.
Demetri McCamey notched two free throws, his only points of the game, to tie the score 61-61. Paul then stole the ball at midcourt and tossed in an acrobatic bank to give his team its first lead since early in the game. It was nip and tuck from there on.
Tisdale was huge down the stretch. He hit four buckets off nice assists from teammates. And he blocked David Potter's short runner in the paint to give the Illini the ball with a one point lead and time running out.
Paul hit one of two free throws to provide the 76-64 edge with 8.4 seconds remaining. Last year's star Demontez Stitt penetrated for one of his patented bank layups, but it was challenged and off the mark. The Illini tipped it away from the bucket and time ran out.
Weber said freshmen Paul and Richardson really grew up this game after struggling in Las Vegas. Paul ended with 20 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and one blocked shot. Richardson added 14 points, three rebounds and two assists. Tisdale was impressed.
"You can't say enough about them. It was probably the toughest game they've played in their whole lives. The first half was a little shaky, but they came out second half and showed what they can do."
Saddled with two fouls after the first three minutes, McCamey got his third with 8 minutes to go in the first half. He got his fourth at the 13:49 mark of the second half but played most of the way thereafter. Despite not scoring, he served more of a leadership role than usual. Weber praised all his players, but he made special mention of McCamey.
"I thought Demetri, even though he only had 2 points, he was probably the key because he handled the press, he led us, he talked. He did so much."
It looked like the Illini were dead in the water first half. Clemson did whatever it wanted on both ends. There was no energy, no heart. Last year the Illini attacked Clemson's full court presses, but first half they allowed the Tigers to attack them. And they gave up 14 offensive rebounds. Weber described the reversal between the halves.
"The first half, they just stood. We got further and further toward halfcourt, and they were denying passes. I said, 'Guys, it's like we've never coached you. You've got to pass, move the ball.' And then we started using some of our little ball screen plays. They really read them well. And we made shots. I can't say enough about them."
Second half, the Illini learned what it takes to compete at the highest level. Juniors Davis and Tisdale were key. Davis ended with 22 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists in one of his best games. Tisdale had all 12 points and 6 of his 8 rebounds second half. And he had four blocked shots. Weber needs the upperclassmen to play inspired every game.
"We have to have consistency from the older guys. They don't have to shoot the ball good, they just have to play hard, do the things they need to compete."
The 23 point comeback topped the previous Illini record of 21 set against Seton Hall in 2000. Weber was thrilled with the outcome and what it means to the Illinois program.
"I can't say enough. It was huge for the Big 10 and huge for us. We can take this as a 'Rise Up' as we've talked about and continue on looking forward as we have a lot of tough games coming up.
"I hope our people didn't shut us off because if they did, they're gonna be amazed when they open the paper tomorrow.
"There's nothing like a win on the road to bring a team together. But I didn't expect it like this. It sure did make a difference in our season."