As they have done in most games, Illinois began the game laid back and disinterested. Gonzaga took advantage, hitting threes and scoring at will on the inside. Mike Tisdale sat down with 2 fouls less than two minutes into the game, and the Zags built a 32-11 lead. Illini players appeared to be playing for themselves and not their team.
Gonzaga had just played 36 hours earlier at home before traveling long distance for an early matchup with the Illini. But according to Illinois coach Bruce Weber, it was the Illini who appeared more tired.
"They're the ones that should have been heavy-legged. I don't know what it is, but you can't spot a team 21 points. To our kids' credit, we fought back and took the lead by eight points. But we could never get enough stops when it mattered."
Gonzaga built a 32-11 lead midway through the first half. The Illini cut into the lead and got it down to a manageable 8 point deficit at halftime. Jeff Jordan passed the ball to Mike Davis for a layin to gave the Illini their first lead at 52-50.
A Demetri McCamey slam off a steal pushed the Illini to their biggest lead at 66-58, but the Zags fought back to gain a three point advantage with :22.1 left in regulation. A Dominique Keller three forced overtime. The Illini could add just four free throws thereafter.
Weber lamented the lack of defense, pointing to the Illini's inability to create turnovers. Fortunately, that glaring trend was reversed late in the first half when Keller and Jordan provided a spark off the bench.
"We had only caused 3 turnovers in 55 minutes. Northwestern had three, and in the first 15 minutes (Gonzaga) had none. Then the bench got a little active. Dominique got going, Jeff got some deflections. They got some loose balls that made a big difference."
Keller was a man on a mission. He played his best overall game as an Illini, canning 22 points and grabbing 9 rebounds in addition to three steals and three assists. He fought valiantly subbing for Tisdale. But in the end, a lack of a post presence was the difference in the outcome.
"At one point in the second half, they were 9-9 from 2," Weber reminded. "We gave up too many points in the paint down the stretch. All they did was cross-screen and post a guy up. You've got to fight in the post, at least get a foul. And then we didn't execute at the end.
"We were tired because we fought so hard to come back. But they should be tired. It didn't help that Tisdale only got to play a few minutes. He's got to get in the weight room and get stronger."
Senior guard Matt Bouldin was the steady, mature leader for the Zags. Whenever they needed a big play, Bouldin provided it. He knifed in for layins and hit a big three to tie the game at 83 near the end of overtime. He scored 18 while handing out 7 assists.
Star freshman forward Elias Harris added 19 points including a short layin to win the game. Wing Steven Gray led the Zags with 20 points, and 7'-0" center Robert Sacre added 19.
Without doubt, Gonzaga was the more mature team. They knew when to attack and when to set up. They understood how to manage the game better than the Illini. With the outcome on the line, the Zags executed and the Illini did not.
With around two minutes left in regulation, both McCamey and Jordan forced ill-advised transition shots that failed, giving the Zags more chances to catch up. The Illini missed all six of their shots in overtime as it seemed everyone wanted the glory of winning the game rather than continuing to work for the high percentage shot.
Gonzaga shot a blistering 68.2% in the second half and 50% for the game while the Illini shot only 41.5%. The Zags outscored the Illini in the paint 48-35. And they outrebounded the Illini 45-36. Once the Illini started fighting on defense, they forced 21 turnovers and ended up outscoring the Zags 33-15 off those turnovers to keep the game close.
For Illinois, McCamey seconded Keller with twenty points and 6 assists. Brandon Paul struggled at times, hitting just 2 of 9 three point attempts, but he finished with 17. Davis was cold. He got his double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, but he hit only 6 of 16 shots and had minimal impact on the defensive end. Tisdale added four points in 11 minutes of action.
This was basically a home game for the Illini as 21,000 orange-clad fans provided strong support in the comeback effort. Weber praised them afterward.
"Great crowd. They gave us energy. Unbelieveable atmosphere. We could never put them away. It was a good game for CBS but not for us."
Weber is at a loss to know where to go from here. He needs a quicker start to games, better defense and rebounding, more teamwork and less selfish play, more maturity under pressure, more understanding of game situations and more intensity overall.
"It's frustrating. I don't know what to do, to be honest. With our start to games, perhaps I need to change the starting lineup."
The Illini have to forget this game quickly as Big 10 play resumes in three days at the Assembly Hall.
"We're playing at home against Iowa Tuesday. We can't let one loss create another loss. They're gonna come in there and grind it out. They play tough, hard-nosed basketball. We've got to match it. We're still 1-0 in the Big 10."
Weber needs to find some magic soon or the Illini may see their NCAA chances dwindle.