Illinois was guaranteed a top five finish in the Big 10 when Michigan trounced Minnesota Tuesday. But they may still be in a must-win situation Sunday morning against Wisconsin at home. The up-and-down Illini played extremely well at Columbus despite the loss, but their last two home games have not gone well. Illini coach Bruce Weber laments the inconsistency.
"If we had that effort the whole time last Saturday, we wouldn't be in quite the predicament we're in. It's been our MO all year to have ups and downs."
The Illini fought valiantly against the talented Buckeyes, especially in the first half. An 11-0 run gave them a 13-8 lead early. Even after OSU scored 13 straight, the Illini fought back to within one at 34-33. A Jon Diebler three gave the Buckeyes a four point edge at the half.
"I thought first half especially we battled them and gave ourselves a chance," Weber said. "Demetri (McCamey) made some plays early in the first half that kept us in there. Brandon Paul can do some things, he can create."
McCamey had 18 points on the night, with 12 points and five assists coming in the first half. All this while playing with an infected foot. He became only the third Illini in history to accumulate more than 200 assists in a season, joining Bruce Douglas and Deron Williams.
Paul scored 9 of his 11 in the first half. Paul still takes ill-advised shots, but the Illini benefitted from his athleticism.
Little by little, Ohio State pulled away in the second half. The Illini continued to battle, but the Buckeyes had too much firepower. The Illini fouled repeatedly as OSU's athletes drove the lane, and they made 19 more foul shots. There were some questionable officiating calls that went against the Illini, but that didn't decide the game.
"We were still hanging and hanging," Weber remembered. "They just have too many weapons, and we don't have enough people to guard all their perimeter guys."
One quality defensive effort was turned in against Ohio State star Evan Turner. Turner ended with 18 points and 12 rebounds, but he was clearly struggling against D.J. Richardson to find his normal game. Weber agreed.
"Diebler made big shots, and (David) Lighty just drove at us, and we couldn't stop him. I thought D.J. really frustrated him (Turner). I thought he could have got a couple push-off calls. The good players aren't gonna get the calls against them. He had four fouls anyway, maybe if we could have got him out of there it would have made a difference.
"Our other guys aren't good enough to guard their other guys. That's what it comes down to. That's what we were worried about from the get-go. We don't have enough defensive people. We've gotten better, but a team that is so good like that and has so many weapons, it catches up with you."
Besides Turner, Diebler hit 7 threes for 21 points as McCamey lost him repeatedly. William Buford scored 17 points including 9 of 11 free throws. Lighty went for 15 in the Buckeyes' balanced attack.
Mike Tisdale scored 10 points for the Illini before fouling out with 7:24 remaining. Mike Davis scored 9 points and added 10 boards, but he missed several wide open shots that might have made a difference.
The big game for the Illini now is Sunday at home against Wisconsin. Most believe the Illini need another signature win to stamp their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, and the Badgers will be a formidable foe. Weber realizes his team has played poorly at home the last two games, but he is pleading with the fans to wake up early and be ready to help the Illini battle.
"We've got to help ourselves. Sunday is so important. Our fans have been tremendous all year. I can't say enough about them. We're not gonna win the Big 10 Championship, but we can still have a special season.
"I know it's 11:00 Sunday morning. I'm begging, wishing that our fans show up. When we beat Wisconsin, I don't think their fans showed up early, and we didn't let the crowd get into it. So we were able to win at their place.
"Now we come home. We need the crowd, we need energy. We've got to play good too. Our last two games at home have been embarrassing, I'll be honest. We played without energy, and I don't understand totally.
"We made some shots against one of the better teams. We played pretty well on the road. Now we've got to play well at home."