Illinois came out of the gate fired up and hot as pistols. They sped to a quick 9-0 lead they never relinquished. Brandon Paul hit a layin off a D.J. Richardson assist, Demetri McCamey swished a three, and Mike Tisdale hit two 18 foot jumpers before the Commodores got on the board. Illini coach Bruce Weber was pleased with the early intensity.
"It was a nice win for us. They're a very good ball club. We shot the ball well early, easy looks. Now once you get those easy looks, the hoop starts looking bigger and bigger.
"Every time they made a run, we found a way to make a big basket. I guess that's what you're supposed to do. That's how you win games at home. It was a good win for our kids."
McCamey explained the quick start.
"We got it going with music in the locker room. We knew we had to come out and play well. They have a real good team, and they were in the Top 25. So we came out ready to show the world we can compete."
Tisdale agreed the early start was vital. The sluggish beginning against Boise State Saturday reminded the players to prepare better.
"Yeah, it's important. Last game we didn't start out the way we wanted to, and it made for an ugly game. We came out fired up this time, ready to play some defense, and it showed. Even though we shot 60%, we got some stops when we needed them."
Vanderbilt never quit, but it never could get closer than seven points. The Commodores tried a variety of defenses and presses, and they forced ten Illini turnovers second half. But the Illini had answers when needed most. Richardson, Jeff Jordan and McCamey hit consecutive threes to stretch a 51-44 lead to 60-44. Jordan's dagger came with the shot clock running out.
And when Vandy's sharpshooter John Jenkins hit a three to draw his team to within 8, Richardson penetrated for a big layin as it appeared the Commodore defense would force a shot clock violation. The freshman with ice in his veins then banged in a three to increase the lead back to 13.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings complimented the Illini afterward.
"They were just a lot better than we were tonight. We got off to a bad start, but we could never get them stopped with any consistency. We didn't play well, we didn't play aggressively. They shot it great, and you really need to congratulate them for that. They were all in their comfort zone. It was like a game of horse, and they had a good day of horse."
Stallings had a couple more interesting things to say on the evening. Someone asked him whether good friend Weber has changed his philosophy since last year when defense won for the Illini in Nashville.
"I think he wants this team to be defensive minded, but they're not yet. He has offensive players who he wants to guard better. He's modified the way they play, but hell will freeze over before he changes his philosophy."
Stallings was still teaching his players with a minute to play and the outcome determined. Someone yelled out, 'Call off the dogs, it's over.' He turned away from the game and responded angrily, 'It's never over.' He then looked back and yelled out, 'It may be over this game, but not the next game.' Quite an admission for a coach during the heat of battle.
McCamey led the Illini with 23 points and five assists. He shot a sweltering 8-10 from the field and was an effective floor general except for 6 turnovers. Weber gave him props afterward.
"Demetri had pretty good numbers, but if he cuts back on two or three of those passes, he has a spectacular game."
D.J. Richardson hit for 16 points, making 7 of 11 shots. He added 3 assists and played the most of any Illini. Tisdale added 14 points, 12 in the first half, and played excellent defense on Ogilvy. McCamey called Jeff Jordan the "MVP of the game" after he hit three of four shots and played a good floor game.
Mike Davis scored only four points, but he pulled down 8 rebounds and assisted his teammates three times. Weber acknowedged the effort.
"Mike Davis didn't score, but he stayed in the game. He got some big rebounds down the stretch."
Stallings said Jeff Taylor was under the weather and didn't show his extra level of ability. He was limited to 12 points, while strong postman A.J. Ogilvy scored only 8 points. Weber praised Tisdale's defense on Ogilvy. The Riverton center admits a preference for playing against bigger players.
"I feel more comfortable playing against guys my size. It's a better matchup for me. It allows me to do some things I couldn't do against a smaller, faster guy. My post moves are a little better against them, and I can get open for jumpers."
Illinois now has a 7-2 record on the season, and a big win like this helps make up for the painful losses in Las Vegas. But Weber warns his team must continue to play this way the next few weeks before the Big 10 season begins.
"This game and the Clemson game help make up for the two losses. But we still have some tough games ahead of us. We can't have any more bad losses. You've got Western Michigan, you go to Georgia.
"The Missouri game is gonna be a big game, and then you have Gonzaga. So this next stretch until the early new year is gonna be huge for us to make a statement that we're a pretty good ball club."
The Illini need a rest after playing 5 games in 14 days. They get a day off before beginning preparations for the Western Michigan game Sunday afternoon at the Assembly Hall. Weber says they must play against WMU like they did against Vanderbilt.
"One of the keys is that we play well on Sunday. We'll see how far we've come and matured. Because Western Michigan will make us play."