Illinois coach Bruce Weber has many personal reasons for wanting to win at Mackey Arena, but he couldn't be disappointed in his team.
"I couldn't be more proud the way we played the game. I want to win in this place more than anyone, but I couldn't be more proud. We played one of the best teams, and we played our butts off. We made plays."
The lead changed hands multiple times. The Illini burst out to a quick 11-4 lead, but Purdue returned the favor at 16-15 on a John Hart hoop and free throw. Bill Cole took the lead back with a three for the Illini, and it continued close the rest of the half. Brandon Paul hit a corner three just before the horn to give the Illini a 35-32 lead at the break.
D.J. Richardson set up Mike Davis for a baseline jumper to give the Illini a five point lead early in the second half. Richardson's three made it 46-42 before Purdue went on an 8-0 run. Demetri McCamey hit a jumper to put the Illini back up 54-52, and Mike Tisdale slammed a McCamey feed to make it 56-54. Unfortunately, that was the Illini's last lead of the game.
Battling ferociously with a home crowd assist, and using all their weapons to create open shots, the Boilermakers finally took command. A 7-0 PU run extended the lead to 68-60, and free throws sealed the Illini defeat at the end.
McCamey continues to make major improvements in his overall game. He scored no points in the first half, yet he directed the team flawlessly and set up teammates 11 times for baskets. He ended up tying Tony Wysinger for the all-time single game assist record at 16 apiece.
"I'm so proud of him," Weber acknowledged. "He did things we've been on him about for three years. It's not about you, it's about getting the ball where you can help our team win. Now I hope he can do it as well next game and get in a rhythm. He's grown up a lot, and he couldn't have had a better game."
Even more important, McCamey did it under the duress of a hostile crowd and overly aggressive Purdue defenders who tried to manhandle him. The foul discrepancy (23-12 in favor of Purdue) no doubt bothered Weber, but McCamey didn't bow to the attempted domination.
"He's so tired, and he's got to bring the ball up the whole time despite their pressure. I guess we fouled too much. We do foul, but...I'm not gonna say anything. Every time we come down the court, there's a guy with his arm on our body. We didn't get those calls, but that's fine."
Mike Davis was back to his double-double self, scoring 16 points while grabbing 12 boards. He also blocked 5 shots for his best overall game in some time. Weber heard indirectly Davis saying he was ready to play, and it proved true.
"Mike said the other day to someone, maybe Chester (Frazier), 'I've got to play, I'm ready to go.' He got some things straightened out in his head."
Weber has endured the up and down cycles of both McCamey and Davis for three years. They often try to do more than they're capable of doing, to their detriment. Weber just wants them to be themselves and will accept the consequences.
"I just told them before the game, 'Be Mike Davis. Do what you're capable. Be Demetri McCamey. And they did everything we asked. We just didn't have enough today to do it."
As well as Davis played, he cannot create his own shot. He needs McCamey or someone to set him up. Illinois must rely on McCamey to create much of its offense. He must either free himself for shots or set up teammates.
Purdue on the other hand has Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson, all of whom can create their own offense. Plus, they have teammates who can hit clutch shots when defenses overplay the Big 3. They have too much firepower for most teams, especially when the roll players get hot. The Illini limited Johnson to five points on 1 for 10 shooting, but others came through.
"Hummel played," Weber reminded. "We did some things with Johnson with our defense, but E'Twuan made some big plays. And (Keaton) Grant made some shots.
"Now it makes a difference because you can shut out (Chris) Kramer, you can shut out Lewis Jackson and other guys. But Grant stepped up the last two games, which has been very important for them. He's struggled, but he wants to be that guy, he's a senior."
Free throws, second chance points and points off turnovers all favored the Boilermakers. The Illini outshot them 49% to 35% from the field, but ten extra offensive rebounds gave Purdue more scoring opportunities. And the Illini made just 3 of 5 free throws while putting the Boilermakers at the line for 28 shots, where they made 24.
Paul added 13 points for the Illini, including 3 threes. Tisdale popped 12 points, and Richardson scored 10. Hummel led Purdue with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Moore hit for 18, including some clutch shots late. Grant hit 3-5 threes and six straight free throws for 15 points, 11 in the second half.
While he doesn't believe in moral victories, the way the Illini played was anything but a defeat. He hopes his Illini can be pleased with their overall play and go into the rest of their games with a new level of confidence and knowledge of basketball.
"There's a lot of basketball left, a lot of tough games left. But now, we've got to use this experience as a springboard to the last few games. If we play this way at Michigan, we have a chance. We've got to get rested tomorrow and then go up to Michigan."