Illinois coach Bruce Weber, distraught at the turn of events, hoped for a magical effort. But it was not to be.
"We had hoped to play at a high level. We had some games where we have been special. All week we talked about preparation, and we tried to pull every motivational thing we had in our bag of tricks. We just didn't play the way we had hoped to.
"It's obviously disappointing. The fans have been so tremendous for us all year, through the ups and downs. It's too bad we couldn't meet our expectations and theirs."
The Badgers are fundamentally sound and well-coached by Bo Ryan. They have strength at all five positions, making them tough to defend. The Illini won in Madison where Leuer sat with a wrist injury, but his presence posting up Sunday made a big difference according to Bill Cole.
"Leuer's obviously a great player. He hurt us a little bit first half and part of the second half. He's a big difference in their team. And then you've also got to watch (Keaton) Nankivil shoot threes. So I think he was the difference. Plus, we didn't rebound very well. Those were the two biggest things I noticed."
The offensive rebounding differential was extremely important according to Weber.
"The difference in the game is the offensive rebounding. And, they were able to go inside and get some post-ups compared to the game up there, where they shot a lot of perimeter shots. The two guards, (Trevon) Hughes and (Jordan) Taylor, getting 10 offensive rebounds, that's more than our whole team."
Some of it was hustle, but from the beginning of the game the ball bounced UW's way. It was frustrating for a team hoping for a quick start.
"The thing we said could be the difference in the game is the loose balls and long rebounds," Weber said. "They were able to get them."
Mike Tisdale led the Illini with 16 points including 8-8 at the free throw line. He said the Illini couldn't sustain anything.
"We made a few plays here and there, but we couldn't seem to string them together. They made tough shots, or they'd get offensive rebounds and putbacks."
The first half was close most of the way. A Tisdale dunk made the score 22-22, but Wisconsin scored five quick points to take a lead they would never relinquish. A Nankivil three at the end of the half gave them a 33-27 edge and plenty of momentum.
The Badgers quickly expanded their lead to start the second half. A Hughes three expanded their margin to 54-38 before the Illini began a comeback with a 12-1 run culminated by two Tisdale free throws to made it 55-50. The Illini crowd sensed upset.
Unfortunately, the Illini lost their cool at that point. In particular, Demetri McCamey tried to force the action unwisely. 5:48 remained when he was bumped on a drive and put up a wild shot hoping for a foul. He missed and nothing was called. Nankivil rebounded a free throw miss at the other end to expand the UW lead to 7.
At the 5:12 mark, McCamey tried to penetrate with nowhere to go and threw a pass that was intercepted. Out of frustration, he grabbed the thief around the waist and was called for an intentional foul. It prevented a breakaway, but it gave the Badgers two free throws and put McCamey on the bench.
McCamey was furious and showed it. He and Weber had heated words at the bench. Weber provided only brief insight afterward.
"Love and kisses. Just trying to teach him how to play. Make good decisions."
This Illinois team goes as McCamey goes. When he is on his game, everyone is confident and plays well. When he is struggling, it affects the whole team. In this game, McCamey needed 6 assists to tie Eric Snow for the Big 10 single season assist record. He didn't reach that total.
Weber acknowledged the reality of the situation.
"We've depended on Demetri the whole year. He has 4 assists, 11 points and he's 2 for 8. Other guys have to play well, but we need him to be really good if we're gonna have a chance."
It was all downhill from there. Seniors Dominique Keller, Richard Semrau and Bubba Chisholm all saw action, and Chisholm made a driving layup to please the home crowd. But Tisdale spoke for the whole team when expressing the disappointment of losing on Senior Day.
"It's disappointing. Anytime you lose on your home court or even for Senior Day. I feel bad for our seniors. But it's not the end of the world, it just feels like it."
Cole hit 4 of 6 threes to second Tisdale in scoring with 14 points. Mike Davis, who struggled all day guarding Leuer, had 6 points to go with 8 rebounds. The Illini shot only 35.6% for the game. Leuer and Taylor each scored 20 points for UW, and Hughes added 14 points and 11 boards.
Wisconsin didn't shoot the eyes out of the basket, but their strikes were timely according to Weber.
"A lot of basketball is making shots. They still only hit 41.9%, that's not extreme. But they had that stretch where they hit a bunch of threes in a row that gave them the big cushion. It was too big of a lead to catch up."
The Illini have one last chance to catch lightning in a bottle and secure a berth in the NCAA Tournament. However, they must defeat this same Badger team Friday in Indianapolis to do it. Cole said it won't be easy to recover from this game and play with confidence Friday.
"It's tough. It's not a great feeling to lose a game you thought you needed to have for postseason chances. I guess you've got to look ahead to the Big 10 Tournament. We can carve a record there. We have the talent, it's just a matter of playing up to our ability."
Tisdale spoke along similar lines.
"It's another situation that's do or die. If we don't get this one, there's not gonna be another chance. It's the most important game of the year for us right now. We're just hoping to come in there and give a little better effort and see if we can't pull out a win."
Weber thinks more than one win next week might be necessary for the NCAA selection committee to give the Illini some love.
"This is coming to the end. We've got one last chance to make the season a positive one. But we've got to play smarter. We've got to have better effort on both ends of the court if we're gonna have a chance to win it.
"It might take us a couple wins in Indianapolis to give us a shot. I don't know. A lot of things can happen over the week. We've shown we're capable, but now we've got to do it on the court."