The Illini missed their first nine shots, but once they relaxed they shot the eyes out of the basket, making 19 of their next 25. In contrast, Western Michigan started out badly and never found the range. Illinois coach Bruce Weber was pleasantly surprised with the effort just before finals week.
"This was a little bit unexpected, but that's how you envision our team to be. We know we can score, we've done it all year.
"I thought the effort on the defensive end was so much better. Our preparation, knowing what the other team is doing. We held them to 24% and never let them get in any kind of groove. I thought second half we broke their spirit a little bit."
The Illini missed their first nine shots from the field, but once they found the range everything fell into place. Mike Davis said they were too amped up at the start.
"At the beginning of the game, everyone was so hyped and filled with energy. Once we calmed down, we got good shots. Everybody stepped to the plate and moved the ball around. We've got guys who can shoot."
Davis said WMU's Flenard Whitfield, the Broncos' high scorer on the day with 17 points, commented to him during the game, 'You guys can make shots.' No understatement there.
But it was the defensive intensity that was the biggest improvement for the Illini. Broncos star David Kool was ninth in the nation in scoring average, but he scored only 13 on 5-17 shooting from the field. He made just 1 of 8 threes after canning 8-13 against EIU. D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Demetri McCamey and Bill Cole all took turns on him. Richardson agreed it was a team effort.
"He was averaging 23 points a game. That was motivation for us to go out there and stop that. The whole team helped. He got to the lane, Mike (Tisdale) blocked a couple shots. As a team, we all defended well. It wasn't just one individual."
WMU coach Steve Hawkins is an intense coach, and he had his men playing hard to begin the game. But he said that effort proved fruitless.
"First of all, credit to Illinois. The one thing we could not allow to happen happened. We allowed them to get very comfortable early in the game. I thought we came out with good energy the first four minutes, but after that we allowed them to get very comfortable.
"We wanted to be way more physical than what we were. We thought the teams that had had success against Illinois have shown that they were more physical than they were. Once they get comfortable, they have way too many offensive weapons, and they can beat you at every spot. I thought they played a very good defensive game as well."
Dominique Keller came off the bench to lead the Illini with 15 points on 5-7 shooting including 3-3 on threes.
"I was definitely feeling it," Keller admitted. "I hit my first three, and I kind of felt good about it so I took another one. They just kept going in, so I kept shooting every time I was open."
Davis had his usual double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Richardson added 12 and McCamey 11 to go along with 5 assists. Tisdale had his best rebounding game with 9 boards to go with 8 points and 5 blocked shots. Bill Cole scored 7 points, Alex Legion and Tyler Griffey added 6 each, and foul-troubled Brandon Paul contributed five points.
The Illini bring in three juniors and a senior off the bench, and that experience is vital in the team's success according to Weber. The Illini had 40 bench points on the day.
"Our bench was important. We looked at their bench before the game, and they have so many young guys. Their numbers are not there yet. I thought if we could get to their bench a little bit, maybe we could take advantage of it. I thought we did in the first half."
The Illini had runs of 10-0, 9-0 and 7-0 in the first half to build the halftime lead to 48-25. Keller alone had an 8-2 run at the end of the half. The Broncos tried to close the gap to begin the second half, but they could get no closer than 18 points before the Illini pulled away. Deep reserves lowered the shooting percentage to a still effective 48.6% after the game was out of reach.
The Illini now must wade through finals. Their next game is Saturday against Georgia. Weber wonders whether history will repeat itself.
"It was just a great overall victory. Now, where do we go? We won the first four games of the season, went to Vegas for two neutral games and did not win. Now we've won four in a row again.
"Now we go to two neutral games in a row. How much progress have we made? Georgia in Atlanta and then Missouri in St. Louis. But before that we've got exams. That's got to be the focus and concentration."