Wisconsin is now 66-6 in Madison during the Bo Ryan tenure, and Bruce Weber's Illini have contributed half the losses. The Kohl Center is nearly invincible to visitors. The Badgers had an 18 game home winning streak, but the Illini found a way to buck the odds. Great shooting, especially by Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale, plus excellent second half defense paved the way for a memorable victory.
With the victory over Michigan State Saturday night plus the post game celebration, the Illini had minimal turnaround for this game. An approaching snow storm forced them to fly North early on Monday, and they had their only practice preparation for the Badgers in Madison. Illinois coach Bruce Weber said that might have been a blessing.
"We played great against Michigan State, and we didn't know how we'd respond. We came up here yesterday and practiced in their gym. We got away from Champaign. We had a good shootaround, we were sharp and quick today. It was an early game, so there was no crowd early, no hype. Maybe it helped us in the long run."
The Illini began the game in a predictable funk. There was no energy, no focus as the Badgers shot out to an 11-2 lead. Turnovers, forced shots and minimal offensive movement gave the appearance of an early blowout. But little by little, the Illini warmed to the task.
Mike Tisdale was huge early. With a decided height advantage and UW defensive emphasis on Big 10 Co-Player Of The Week Demetri McCamey, Tisdale found himself open for several early jumpers. When Wisconsin began to double Tisdale, McCamey took advantage with runners in the lane.
The Illini went on a 16-5 run, a McCamey three bringing the first tie of the game at 27 all. McCamey hit a long three to give the Illini their first lead at 30-29, and he hit a 28 footer at the end of the shot clock. A Trevon Hughes three at the buzzer gave the Badgers a 35-33 lead at halftime, but the Illini were back in the game. Weber described the first half action.
"It was a great effort. A little bit of a slow start, kind of like the middle of the season where the other teams set the tempo of the game, and we were just watching them play. We weren't aggressive or tried to push the ball. Then we started getting some ball screens.
"Demetri had a slow start, but he really got going. He made great plays at the end of the half. But you have to give them credit. Hughes hit the big shot before halftime."
"The first thing I wrote on the board at halftime was, 'Be a player in this game.' You've got to step up and be a player if you're gonna have any chance to beat a team like this at a crucial time with shutouts, baskets, free throws, whatever it takes."
Weber also reminded them to play for the full 40 minutes. Wisconsin hit a lot of threes early, and he needed the Illini to guard the arc better.
"Part of it was we just weren't aggressive early. We wrote on the board their field goal percentage was only 42%. But they shoot twice as many threes as their opponents, and they make twice as many.
"I said we've got to contest threes, that's got to be the number one thing. Second half, they hit just 4 threes, so we did a little bit better job adjusting to the threes."
McCamey agreed the second half defense was key to the outcome.
"We adjusted our defense. We tried to make (Jason) Bohannon and Trevon (Hughes) try to beat us driving. They got a couple in the second half, but we shut them out the last few minutes of the game. I think we played tremendous defense and got the rebounds when we needed to."
The Illini took the lead for good when D.J. Richardson hit a jumper at the four minute mark. McCamey hit a jumper, and the Illini hit 5 of 7 free throws to ice it. The Badgers failed to score for nearly six minutes until Rob Wilson buried a desperation three with time running out.
McCamey finished with 27 points, hitting 11-17 shots including 3-4 from the arc. He was excited afterward, but he knew the Illini could turn the trick.
"It feels great, tremendous. They had an 18 game winning streak here, but we felt we could beat the Badgers on their home court if we played Illini basketball."
The Illini rely heavily on McCamey, and his improved play and leadership have made a big impact recently. Weber agreed, although he can always improve.
"I know he played really good, 27 points and 7 assists. What's wrong with those 5 turnovers? What the heck. I have to have something to complain about," Weber joked.
Tisdale scored 19 points to support McCamey, while Richardson added 9 points, all in the second half, and four rebounds. Bill Cole and Mike Davis each grabbed 8 rebounds, but Davis took only two shots and missed both. Tyler Griffey scored four points and added five boards in 13 minutes. For the game, the Illini outshot the Badgers 53.3% to 35.7%.
Little by little, the Illini are beginning to envision success at a high level. Their last 8 regular season games are the most difficult stretch of the year, but the first two are already in the win column. Ohio State looms at home Sunday, and Weber believes the Buckeyes have the best starting team in the Big 10. It doesn't get any easier.
But the Illini, who were on the ropes at 12-8, have now won five straight and are playing much better basketball. Even Weber is beginning to think hopefully.
"Now we're maybe a little bit of a player in the race. The schedule is murderous, but you just never know."