Media nearing deadlines in a late Saturday game had to rewrite their scripts as Illinois played Jekyll and Hyde against the Hoosiers. The Illini had no enthusiasm or energy to start the game, and they did just about everything wrong. Scribes noted the lethargic defense, immobile offense, terrible shooting percentage and careless passing and planned a scathing commentary on the downfall of a once proud team.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber described the first half situation well.
"They came out and took it to us at the beginning. They just punked us basically. They lost a tough battle with Ohio State, they had tough practices and responded. They went after us, and we didn't play very well.
"They came out like we thought they would. They played their hearts out. We knew they would be very physical, and they were. You've got to give Tom Crean credit. They played with a lot of emotion. They're gonna beat some other people here."
Instead of responding aggressively to the challenge, Illini shoulders drooped as if all hope was lost and they were defenseless. Weber agreed.
"First half was like that. We froze. We panicked. We didn't do the things we practiced or all the things we had talked about. We had bad body language.
"We regrouped at halftime. The players were worried about how physical they were, and I said, 'Guys, they're just kicking your butts. We can't sit here and worry about it, we've got to take the game to them.'"
That's when the Illini went to work. Demetri McCamey decided to be aggressive offensively instead of dribbling on the perimeter, and the team changed personas. The more he penetrated, the more opportunities he created for himself and his teammates.
And the Illini became more focused defensively, reducing the Hoosier shooting percentage from 56% at halftime to 41.5% overall. In contrast, Illinois boosted its shooting from a meager 26% at the half to 39.1% for the game. Not great, but much better the second half.
McCamey scored only 6 points in the first 20 minutes but ended with 19 points, 9 assists and 4 rebounds. Mike Tisdale was the beneficiary of several of his passes and became the high scorer with 27 points including 13-14 free throws. He added 9 rebounds. D.J. Richardson hit some pressurized shots and ended with 14 as he started in place of fellow freshman Brandon Paul.
It was fortunate the Illini have experience coming from behind. But as Weber reminds, the need to come from behind is anything but encouraging.
"The sad thing is we've been through this a lot of times. So it's nothing new. We know how to deal with trying to catch up. We just said to keep our poise. They finally missed some threes, and then all we had to do was stay in the lane and make sure they didn't get to the basket. And then we executed down the stretch.
"It was a good win. We're 3-0, and now we get to go back home. Right now we've got to enjoy this win. You don't get many wins here."
Illini starters included Jeff Jordan and Bill Cole for the second game in a row. Cole had just one point in 23 minutes, and Jordan didn't score in 19 minutes. But Jordan played a good defensive game and grabbed an important rebound between three Hoosiers late in the game. Cole helped ignite second half play by taking a charge and diving for a steal on consecutive IU possessions.
"Billy had 6 on the play hard chart at halftime," Weber praised. "It was half of what our whole team had. He does so many little things that are good."
Mike Davis grabbed 11 rebounds, but he seemed distracted most of the time. He took only two shots, making one, missed both free throw attempts, and had four turnovers plus a few other careless passes. Fortunately, Indiana couldn't handle Tisdale down low.
"We got it to Tisdale," Weber described. "He can make plays, and we've got to keep doing that until someone defends us differently."
The Illini won in Bloomington for the second year in a row. This is the first time that has happened since the 1996-97 and 1997-98 seasons. They now return home to face a Nittany Lion team Tuesday night that feels confident playing the Illini according to Weber.
"Now we've got Penn State, and they've owned us in the Assembly Hall. We've got to be ready to play, see if we can be 4-0."