Illinois coach Bruce Weber was both excited and relieved with the big win over Wisconsin.
"It was a great win. It was one of our better defensive efforts of the season."
The Illini played with intensity throughout the contest and took the game to the Badgers. They outfought and outhustled their northern neighbors, and it was enough to secure an important victory.
Weber made the Illini practice with great intensity in practices this week by forcing the losing team to run after every drill. The fear of punishment made everyone more intense, and it carried over Friday.
"I told the coaches Monday, I'm gonna coach the way I want to coach," Weber admitted. "And we went after it for about an hour. In all the drills, it was very physical. We had a reprieve on Tuesday and came back and did the same thing Wednesday. I think this is how we should be playing all the time. They came back and got the message."
Illinois played like Weber's earlier teams, and the ones at Purdue all those years he coached under Gene Keady. It also helped to remember the pain of last Sunday's home loss to the Badgers.
"I thought the difference could be if we out-toughed them. Maybe it was a byproduct of the quick turnaround, not playing well on Sunday and now having more determination."
Whatever, UW shot only 18% in the first half on 6 for 33 shooting, and they improved to a paltry 28.6% by hitting five late threes. Illinois flustered and harassed them, giving them no easy looks. At the same time, the Illini came out smoking hot, putting doubts in Badger minds. It was a deadly combination.
Last Sunday, Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor and Jon Leuer ran rings around the weak defensive efforts of Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis respectively. Weber was asked the difference in their defense Friday.
"We told Demetri and Mike Davis we needed their best defensive effort of the year. For most of it, we did. Demetri gets casual. We demanded he play 40 minutes again. He's got to handle the ball, he's got to come off screens, he's got to handle the ball screens. We wear him out, and he takes time off on the defensive end.
"That's what we really tried to emphasize. Taylor had a field day on him Sunday. Taylor had a few baskets, but we made him earn it. We didn't give him many easy shots.
"Leuer is just starting to come back (from injury). He played pretty good against Iowa the game before ours. I think, unanticipated, they posted him up (Sunday). Now we adjusted. We said we've got to fight him in the post, we can't let him get it. One of the big things is playing defense before your man gets the ball. If you let him get it in his comfort zone, it's tough to stop him.
"I think they both (Davis and fellow big Mike Tisdale) played good defense before their men got the ball, getting in a stance and fighting them. Leuer still got 14, but we limited him, and he had to earn it much more than he did at our place."
Tisdale had a simple explanation for the improved effort.
"The intensity. We were a whole different ball club today. We came out fired up, all the players were talking, and we had energy. That's what we were missing at home. It was another win, and hopefully we can do the same thing tomorrow."
The Illini led from start to finish. They got off to a 7-0 start as D.J. Richardson sandwiched a three between a long two and running hook by Tisdale. A McCamey jumper made it 19-12. At the 7:54 mark of the first half, Illinois was shooting 73%.
The Illini would have extended the lead further except for untimely fouls and uncharacteristic turnovers that kept the Badgers close. Tisdale hit a driving tear drop to make it 25-16. A McCamey turnaround gave the Illini an 11 point edge at 29-18, and they held on to stay up by nine at the break, 29-20.
No one scored in the first 3:13 of the second half, but the Illini drew first blood when D.J. Richardson deposited 2 of 3 free throws and followed with a three to put the Illini up by 14. Tisdale hit his second three of the game, doubling his season output, to extend the lead to 41-26. A Richardson three gave the Illini their biggest lead of the game 46-30 at the 6:45 mark.
Tisdale drew his fourth foul at that point and was benched, and the Badgers mounted a comeback. Jason Bohannon hit his first bucket of the game, a three, and Leuer pulled up for a jumper to close the gap to 46-38. McCamey hit a long prayer as time expired on the shot clock, but tentative play by the Illini altered their offensive flow and UW upped its intensity.
Trevon Hughes, held to 0-12 shooting by Richardson's defensive presence, then went wild. He hit four straight threes to bring the Badgers within a perilously close 56-54. However, Hughes then fouled out to end the Badgers' last threat. Jeff Jordan and Mike Davis each hit one of two foul shots to produce the final margin, and a McCamey steal in the closing seconds sealed the win.
Weber wasn't surprised by the close outcome.
"We never make it easy on ourselves. It was typical of our season. We got a little tentative at the end, but we got the win."
McCamey said the team never lost confidence as the Badgers crept closer.
"We didn't doubt ourselves. We heard Coach Weber yell 'Keep your head up.' Me and Tisdale talked to the fellas and kept our composure."
This was Illinois' first victory on a neutral court after five failures this season.
"It's great," McCamey stated. "When you're away from home, your confidence gets shot down a little bit. At the same time, we needed to compete with a Top 25 team and prove in a new season on a new court that we can compete and win the ball game."
Tisdale led the Illini with 21 points and 8 rebounds. He doubled his three-point output for the season with two swishers. McCamey scored 13, grabbed 5 boards and dished out 8 assists for one of his best all-around games. Richardson struggled with 6 turnovers, but he regained his shooting eye with 12 points. And Davis had a double-double with 10 points and an equal number of rebounds.
Tisdale isn't thinking about getting into the NCAA Tournament as yet. Ohio State has beaten the Illini badly twice this year and is a formidable obstacle Saturday.
"We knew it couldn't hurt. We're in the Big 10 Tournament, and we're not thinking farther than that. We play Ohio State tomorrow. There's no thought process after that."
Weber is thinking about it, if nothing else to respond to constant media questioning. He provided an impassioned resume for NCAA perusal.
"I believe we have the fourth most RPI wins in the country. We have proven all year we can beat people. We usually have great records on neutral courts, and we have great fan following."
But like Tisdale, Weber is thinking primarily about tomorrow.
"The most important thing is we're playing tomorrow. We came here to keep moving one day at a time, so we're excited about it.
"If we're gonna win, we're gonna have to battle tomorrow. We have to guard them. We've had bad matches with them, we haven't been able to stop them. That's got to be our focus, and let the scoring come."
All the players need to be playing their best to defeat a powerful, talented Buckeye quintet. McCamey acknowledged that includes his own defensive effort.
"Play with intensity like we did today on the defensive end. I have to have another game where I make defense my best effort and let the offense come. Tomorrow our motto is defense to stop Ohio State. If we do that, we'll be fine."