Illinois benefitted from a large contingent of Orange Krush who bussed to the game. Disguised until game time, they removed Iowa gear to expose more than 150 orange clad fans on floor level ready to cheer loudly for their favored sons. Coach Bruce Weber acknowledged their importance afterward.
"It was tremendous. It was great to see them. I didn't know they were coming. Somebody whispered they were coming, and I kept looking for them before the game and couldn't find them. All of a sudden, there they were. They just popped up out of nowhere. It was great to have them here.
"They kept the energy going. They were into it. They really do a great job, and we appreciate it."
The game itself was anything but an artistic success. Both teams suffered from poor shooting at times. Iowa was 1 for 10 from the arc in the second half. At times, one wondered if either team would score again.
"We got the win," was Weber's bottom line. "It wasn't the prettiest win, but we found a way to win. We said we had to grind it out, and that's what we did."
Fortunately, the Illini had answers when needed most. Both teams battled on even terms first half, Iowa hitting 7 of 18 threes to keep the game close. Demetri McCamey hit two jumpers off transition and drove for a layup at the buzzer to help the Illini to a 35-27 lead into halftime.
The Illini pushed the lead to 11 early in the second half, but they inexplicably went into a scoring drought that allowed the Hawkeyes to creep back into the game. Weber had seen this scenario before.
"It was almost identical to Northwestern. We had the 8-10 point lead at the midway point of the second half, and we just can't find a way to score. We missed some open shots, we didn't have good possessions sometimes. Now I think you start getting a little tight."
Iowa would never take the lead, but it did make it a nervous 48-45 down the stretch. It was then that first Tyler Griffey and then Mike Davis hit big jumpers to hold the Hawkeyes at bay. Iowa's Aaron Fuller hit four free throws to counter, but Mike Tisdale hit four free throws and McCamey one to give the Illini the 8 point victory.
A key for the Illini was the defensive effort. Buoyed by constant energy from the Krush, Illinois played one of its best defensive games according to Weber.
"We did a good job defensively early, which was key. We held them to 29% field goals on their home court. I know we have some deficiencies at times on defense, but that was impressive."
McCamey added seven rebounds and seven assists to his team leading point total. He continues to rise and fall emotionally, but Weber realizes the team needs him and must accept him as he is.
"Demetri, we rely on him so much. He made a couple dumb plays, but he had 15/ 7 and 7 rebounds. It was really good production for him."
Tisdale supported McCamey with 14 points and 7 rebounds. He appeared to bruise his knee late, but he returned in time to hit the four free throws at the end. D.J. Richardson added 11, 8 in the first half. Mike Davis scored six points and pulled down 5 rebounds while playing 29 minutes off the bench.
The Illini did what they needed to do to make Saturday night's showdown with the Michigan State Spartans mean something. Still two games behind MSU in the conference race, an electric crowd supporting the Illini and College GameDay should make for a special evening according to Weber.
"We found a way to win. We're 7-3 and now we play Michigan State on center stage Saturday night."