Illinois and Purdue both understood the magnitude of the game, and they responded with great intensity and focus at the beginning. The Illini took it to the Boilermakers early, gaining an 8 point advantage at one point. But Illini coach Bruce Weber reminded his team didn't always take advantage of its opportunities.
"Hats off to Purdue. They came in with a great determination. I thought the game was determined in the first half. I think they were doubting a little bit, and we actually played pretty good basketball on the defensive end.
"We didn't play very smart on the offensive end and didn't make our free throws. We could have grabbed the game then but didn't. They hit the last basket of the half and then the first five of the second half."
Demetri McCamey, who led all scorers with 28 points while dishing out 9 assists, echoed Weber's comments.
"When we get up, we take bad shots and don't break a team's spirit. We've got to come together and play team basketball."
Even with the occasional lapses, the Illini led at the break 32-28. But Illinois' Jekyll and Hyde persona reared its ugly head again as it came out flat, allowing Purdue to gain a lead they never relinquished.
"We had no emotion to start the second half, and I don't understand," Weber bemoaned. "It is a little baffling. And we didn't stop anybody second half. Defense is pride, determination. 56 points on your home court is way too much. They made some big shots."
Illinois focused on stopping Purdue's big three of Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson. For the most part, they did that. It was freshmen John Hart and Kelsey Barlow who broke the Illini's back. Hart's absense from the official scorebook cost the Boilermakers a technical foul, but he made up for it by scoring 14 points in 18 minutes. For his effort, ESPN's Erin Andrews interviewed him afterward.
Weber said prior to the game the Illini needed to guarantee the other Purdue players didn't beat them, but his warning went for naught.
"We didn't quit. I thought the big difference besides our not grabbing the game in the first half was the other guys. Hart hasn't played, but he played huge. I thought Kelsey Barlow made a big difference. We did a solid job on Hummel, and we did a good job on E'Twaun Moore. JaJuan Johnson got to the free throw line too much. Those other guys were the difference makers and made the big plays.
The Illini, accustomed to fighting from behind, made it close. In the most important segment, every time they'd reduce the deficit, an unheralded Purdue freshman would respond. Tyler Griffey hit two free throws to make it 53-46, but Hart responded with two free throws. Mike Davis hit a layup off a Bill Cole feed, and Hart responded with a jumper to put Purdue up by six.
McCamey hit two free throws, but Kelsey Barlow answered with a drive and free throw. Davis hit a bank shot, but Barlow came down and drove the hoop and got fouled for another three point play. Davis hit a jump hook, and Hart answered with a three to put the Boilers up by nine.
A Purdue manager failed to include Hart in the official scorebook, resulting in the technical. But at least for this game, Hart played like a man possessed according to Purdue coach Matt Painter.
"I just thought he (Hart) played harder than some of our other guys. I thought John had that hunger from not playing. Barlow plays every game. Kelsey Barlow is a very talented kid. He didn't score much in high school, but he's a high major guy.
"I'm happy for John, but everything looks better when shots go in. He wasn't a highly recruited guy, but he can score the basketball."
Illinois got only twenty minutes and four points out of foul-plagued Mike Tisdale. Weber is at a loss to figure how to keep his big guy in games.
"It was disappointing not to have Mike Tisdale in there. He gets in foul trouble. Mike's got to change, to learn. I don't understand the ticky-tack fouls, but it continues to happen. We need him in the game."
Mike Davis broke out of his slump, going 8-16 from the field for 17 points. He grabbed 15 rebounds, 11 in the first half. Six of his boards were on the offensive glass. It was his Big 10 leading ninth double-double of the season. D.J. Richardson added 12 points, overcoming an 0-7 start on the night. His two clutch threes late gave Illini fans hope.
Besides the poor second half defense, the Illini also suffered through a cold night shooting. They ended at 40.9% for the game from the field and only 58.6% from the free throw line. McCamey hit 13 free throws but missed six others. Davis was just 1 of 4 on the night. Make those shots, and the Illini would have won.
Weber knows his players have the firepower to win many more games. But he has no idea whether they will perform as needed to accomplish their goals.
"We're a good team, but we're not always smart, and we don't always guard."
It doesn't get any easier for the Illini. They travel to Northwestern Saturday, and they will be especially tough at home. Somehow, some way, the Illini have to right the ship according to Weber.
"I think we're a better team than this, but right now we're still searching. We've got to figure some things out real soon, before it's too late."