Georgia out muscled, out fought, out shot and out hustled Illinois in securing its biggest victory of the season. New coach Mark Fox pointed to this game, and his players were determined to win. Bruce Weber described it perfectly afterward.
"They took the game to us right from the get-go. We beat those guys badly last year, so they're gonna come at you. They scored 11 points in the first three minutes. They sometimes don't score 11 points in the first 10 minutes. They came out with high energy, and we didn't match it. Now, you're playing catch-up the whole time."
A combination of poor rebounding and defense allowed Georgia point-blank shots the whole game. The Bulldogs held a decisive 19-10 rebound edge in the first half and outscored the Illini 20-4 in the paint. Even though the game was tied 32-32 at the half, it was Georgia who had the momentum and confidence.
The game was tied 9 times, and the lead changed hands 13 times. But every time the Illini grabbed the lead, the Bulldogs came right back. Georgia built a 9 point lead at 45-36 early in the second half. Mike Davis tied it at 49 with a short jump hook, but the Bulldogs surged back in front 64-55.
The Illini rallied again. A Demetri McCamey layup and free throw gave the Illini their first lead of the second half at 67-66, but four Trey Thompkins free throws sealed the victory for Georgia. McCamey had a chance to win it in the last few seconds, but his driving floater was off the mark.
Weber acknowledged the effort in the second half.
"To our kids' credit, we found a way to come back. We looked like we were down and out a couple times. We did make some plays, and we took the lead. Thompkins makes four big three throws down the stretch. We get a shot at the end and didn't make it. It shouldn't have gotten to that point."
Georgia's size and muscle inside caused the Illini problems all game. Rebounding and post defense continue to be an Illini weakness.
"They've got some big-bodied guys in there who know what they're supposed to do," Weber admitted. "They're just going to the boards, they know their role. We have to box out, we have to have other people rebound. Not a great effort on the boards."
Illinois was passive defensively much of the game, allowing easy inside looks. Georgia shot 49% for the game, thanks in large part to all their layups. With a small crowd decidedly stronger for the Illini than the Bulldogs, Weber expected more defensive intensity.
"That's why you feel bad. I told the guys at the start of the game, 'How do you think Georgia feels?' Come to their territory and we have more fans than they do. They're supposed to pick us up, not them. Somehow, we've got to have some emotional leadership.
"Their big three, Thompkins, (Travis) Leslie and (Ricky) McPhee, played well. That's why they won the game. Of our big three, Demetri made some plays. But the other two didn't make plays when it mattered."
Georgia shot better (49% to 45%), had 8 more rebounds, two more assists and two more steals than the Illini. Thompkins and McCamey each scored 21 to lead their respective teams. Leslie added 17 and McPhee 12 to lead the Bulldogs. For the Illini, Mike Davis scored 12 and Mike Tisdale 10 before fouling out. Bill Cole added 9 off the bench.
"Brandon's just so casual. He's got to understand this is another level. He has no attitude problem, he's a great kid. He's almost too good a kid. But you've got to have a little intensity because they'll be intense to you.
"With D.J., we've got to find ways of getting him the ball. We don't get him open shots. He doesn't move, the big guys don't screen. Somehow, we've got to get him some easy looks."
Both freshmen seem limited to shooting threes or driving to the basket. Opponents are learning to stop their drives, so Weber says they must look for another option.
"Their big guys are sitting back in there. Now D.J. and Brandon go in there, it's not high school. You've got to hit a jump shot or kick it to somebody."
The freshmen didn't lose the game for the Illini. They are a talented team when they play with intensity and determination. But with their reputation, other teams will play hard to beat them. If they rest on their laurels, they will continue to struggle at times. They are a group of slender jump shooters who need to improve their defense and rebounding to reach their goals.
Now, they have a crucial tilt with the Missouri Tigers on the horizon. Weber knows his team has its work cut out for it in St. Louis Wednesday.
"Now we've got to come back to one of the best college basketball atmospheres with the game with Missouri. We can't sulk. We've got to see if we can figure it out and beat a good Missouri team.
"The Missouri game was important anyway, now it's real important. We can't come out casual because they're not coming out casual, I promise you. They play at a very chaotic speed and intensity. We have to see if we can match it."