The Fighting Illini played their best basketball of the season in their signature triumph over an outstanding Michigan State team. They started fast and had fewer prolonged slumps than any other game. Illinois coach Bruce Weber was complimentary afterward.
"It was a fun day, a great day. We talked about playing at a high level, a magic level, and I thought we did. Every time we took the lead, they just seemed to come back. We don't always do smart things, but we didn't quit.
"We've made some steps. Now we've got to continue to improve. And you've got to play your best basketball at the end of the year. That's the key more than anything. We're starting to make some strides. I think this game has topped Vanderbilt as our best game so far."
The crowd was fantastic, From the GameDay morning show to the end of the game, the Illini Nation would not let its beloved team lose. Team leader Demetri McCamey acknowledged their importance.
"It was tremendous. We knew we were gonna get a big crowd just to play Michigan State. It was special with GameDay here. We knew the fans were gonna be pumped up. We just didn't want to get big-headed and overenergized. We were level-headed and maintained that for 40 minutes."
Mike Davis concurred.
"The crowd was great. They were the 6th man tonight. They kept us in it."
MSU coach Tom Izzo is good friends with Weber, but his compliments afterward were well deserved. And he singled out McCamey for special praise after his 22 point, 11 assist effort.
"I think you've got to give Bruce credit. He's mixed and matched it all season, changing that starting lineup. As I told McCamey, he's twice the player he was when he played at our place. He's more under control, a better passer, he sees the court and hits big shots.
"It was a hell of a basketball game in front of an incredible crowd. What Bruce did with McCamey early in the year and Davis late in the year is the reason you win games. You've got to be a little controversial sometimes, make tough decisions. He made some that bettered his team. Give him a lot of credit.
"I think that's why Bruce is one of the best coaches in the country. He sits guys, he doesn't put up with stuff. He changes things up. (Brandon) Paul played so well early, then he went into the freshman slump. He challenged him, and now the kid is getting better.
"(D.J.) Richardson, I've liked him all year long. But I still think McCamey's the guy that stirs the drink. To me, he is so much different a player. He's one of the more improved players during the season. I'm very very impressed with him."
McCamey deferred credit to his teammates.
"It's a good feeling. We knew we can compete with these guys. We felt like we let one slip up there. Tonight we wanted to fight for 40 minutes. They made their runs and we made ours. They kept fighting and never gave up. I want to give my guys credit. We played for 40 minutes probably for the first time all season.
"I'm not trying to prove I'm one of the best players in the country. I just want Illinois to get to the tournament and do big things. All the other things will come. We just want to get big wins like this so our team can feel happy and know we can compete with the best teams in the country."
McCamey said all the right things in the post game press conference as well as his TV interview with ESPN star Erin Andrews. So perhaps he can be forgiven for jumping on the scorer's table and shouting, "This is my house."
The Illini came out smoking to start the game. They went on a 10-0 run to lead 14-4, but Michigan State came back with a 12-2 run of its own to tie the score at 16. The Illini continued to maintain a small lead as D.J. Richardson hit for 9 points and Mike Davis and Demetri McCamey 6 each. An Austin Thornton jumper at the buzzer reduced the Illini lead to 35-34 at halftime.
MSU took the lead on two different occasions in the second half, but each time the Illini fought back. They took a 64-57 lead late only to see the Spartans tie it again at 68 apiece. But Brandon Paul made a beautiful baseline drive for a score, McCamey swished a three, and D.J. Richardson netted three free throws.
With the clock dipping under ten seconds, Davis leaped high to tip Durrell Summers's long three attempt and then received a long pass from Bill Cole for a decisive dunk as the final horn sounded.
Davis, who may have played himself back into the starting lineup, added 16 big points. His rebounding total was measily, but he played a good all-around game and may be getting his confidence back. He was happier for the team than himself.
"We felt we could win, just compete with these guys. We thought we made so much progress since the last time we played them. Today we showed that. Everybody stepped up in their own way, and we came out with a very good team victory."
Both teams shot over 50% for the game, played at a frenetic pace. Michigan State struggled without point guard Kalin Lucas, but it had enough experience and firepower to overcome it for the most part. MSU controlled the boards 34-24 as Draymond Green had 16 boards all by himself.
Richardson had 14 points supporting McCamey and Davis. Paul added 8, while Tyler Griffey and Mike Tisdale added six each. Tisdale led the Illini in rebounds with 8. Green led the Spartans with 17 points, while Chris Allen added 15 and Summers 11.
Weber was pleased by the effort of the freshmen, especially Paul and Richardson. He needs them to step up in support of the upperclassmen, and they are starting to do that.
"The two freshmen give us some athleticism. I told Brandon yesterday, 'Let the game come to you. Do all the other things.' He was one of the leaders on our MATTO early, he was our leader in charges, he got rebounds. Maybe he listened. He still shot 10 shots, but I thought they were better shots. He made some huge plays. The freshmen were good. Their pressure, their athleticism helped."
Weber will allow some celebration tonight, but an important date with powerful Wisconsin looms Tuesday. The trip to Madison will be a major undertaking as the Badgers are playing amazing ball right now. The challenge is a sobering one, but it will wait until tomorrow.
"We took a step, but it's not like we've made it or anything," Weber reminds. "You've got to enjoy tonight, the opportunity and the crowd. You've got to celebrate a little somewhere. I think we had a good show for ESPN today."