Illinois played with heart and determination throughout and made Illini Nation proud. With their big win against Wisconsin, some felt the Illini deserved to be in the NCAA Tournament while others didn't. An upset of the Buckeyes would have secured the bid, but the closeness of the contest helped the Illini pass the "eye test" for NCAA selection committee members. Hopefully that is enough.
Illinois assistant coach Jay Price said the coaching staff was proud of the effort.
"We played really well and really hard. We knew we had to play as hard as we can play, and we did. The Ohio State team is really good and really talented. That's just the way it goes."
Ohio State grabbed an early 15-7 lead, but the Illini came right back with a 14-0 run. Tyler Griffey, playing the best game of his career so far, started the run with a jumper as Mike Tisdale sat down with two fouls.
Mike Davis hit a jump hook and slam off transition, and D.J. Richardson popped a three. McCamey converted his own steal into a hoop and a free throw, and Griffey finished it with another jumper to make it 21-15.
Three freshmen, Richardson, Griffey and Brandon Paul, were on the floor together much of the first half. The lead was a precarious 28-25 when McCamey sat with two fouls, but the Illini maintained it the rest of the half. A forced three by Griffey at the end of the shot clock gave the Illini a 37-31 lead at the break.
Price was pleased with the maturity of the frosh.
"We actually increased the lead when they were on the floor. That's a good sign they can get things done."
The Buckeyes cut the lead to two starting the second stanza, but the Illini quickly recovered. A Richardson floater, Tisdale slam off a feed from Bill Cole, long Griffey jumper and McCamey drive pushed the lead to 45-35.
At this point, OSU went to a 1-3-1 zone and full court zone press. A Demetri McCamey three gave the Illini their biggest lead at 50-39. However, the Illini offense then began to sputter. They went five minutes without a field goal as the Buckeyes enjoyed an impressive 20-0 run to lead 59-50. Price confirmed the Illini became tentative during that stretch.
"When they could set up their press, it slowed us down."
Still, the Illini refused to quit. Facing what appeared to be insurmountable odds, they rallied again. Tisdale ended the Buckeye run with two free throws and a turnaround. A McCamey drive made it 59-56 before Buckeye star Evan Turner made a free throw. Paul fouled out at this point.
Mike Davis' three point play on a putback reduced the deficit to one. After a William Buford layup, Davis hit a driving runner and then stole the ball. McCamey popped for three off the resulting transition to put the Illini back in front 64-62. David Lighty's drive tied it, but McCamey deposited two free throws at :31.5. Turner then cashed a baseline drive to tie it.
The Illini called timeout with :03.2 left on the clock. McCamey penetrated with the clock running out but decided to pass to an open Davis under the bucket. In hindsight, McCamey should have shot as Davis didn't get his bank off in time. It missed anyway.
The Illini continued to play well in the first overtime, even after Tisdale fouled out. Each time the Illini would take the lead, Turner would drive and either hit a layup or get fouled. Highlights of the first overtime included a terrific McCamey drive and long three to give Illinois a 73-69 advantage. After two Turner free throws, Cole made his only points of the game with a hustling, second-effort tipin.
But the Illini couldn't stop Turner. He made two free throws, and he hit a drive after a failed Illini possession to tie the score at 75. The Illini had 19 seconds to get off the final shot, but none were attemped in time. Griffey had the only opening, but the freshman gave up the rock.
"At the end of the first overtime he was open, and he should have let it fly," Price reflected. "He was hesitant to shoot the basketball."
Price had praise for Griffey despite that decision.
"Tyler came in and played really well. He made some huge shots. He made a big three when we were struggling. He had 13 points and 5 rebounds, and he had to guard quicker guys. So I thought he did a good job."
The second overtime was all Ohio State. Even when Turner finally fouled out with one minute remaining (some felt he should have left much earlier), Buckeye athletes Buford and Lighty took turns penetrating for layins. The one play the Illini have not been able to guard all year was their undoing at the end.
Price was diplomatic about the officiating, but as usual it appeared the refs protected the superstar Turner. He often uses his left arm to make room for his drives, but the calls usually go against the defender. Regardless, he was money when it counted.
"Turner not only has some interesting pro moves, but he got to the line a lot. We did a good job on him. But when he needed a shot, he made it."
The Illini really wanted this game, and they had their chances. Price was pleased with their reaction afterward.
"We had our chances at the end of regulation and the first overtime. We didn't make the plays, and we didn't make the stops when we had to. It's the most disappointed locker room I've seen in a long time, which is good."
Demetri McCamey led the Illini with 22 points. He also had four rebounds and five assists. It appeared at times he was taking heat checks rather than looking for the best option, but he was clutch when needed most.
He hit only 7 of 19 shots, 3 of 11 from three. He had six turnovers, countering that with 4 steals. His teammates often stood around waiting for him to make a play, but 46 minutes of game action took its toll.
"Demetri played a lot of minutes and played hard," Price said. "But at the end he was just tired."
Davis was a demon on the boards, grabbing a season high 18 while adding 13 points. He played well despite 5 turnovers. Richardson had an excellent game with 15 points, three rebounds and four assists with no turnovers. Tisdale joined Griffey in double figures with 10 despite playing only 27 minutes.
The Illini shot 41.3% for the game, 33.3% from three. They had 17 turnovers but 13 steals. The Illini also outrebounded the quick-jumping Buckeyes 45 to 41, with 14 offensive boards contributing mightily to the effort.
Paul scored only three points, but he added five rebounds. And he was uncharacteristically generous to his teammates with four assists. He played more balanced and under control than anytime recently, and his overall game and athleticism was missed when he fouled out.
Big 10 MVP Turner had a triple double of sorts with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 turnovers. He added 6 assists. Buford supported him with 22 points and 10 boards, while Jon Diebler added 14 and Lighty 12. As a team, the Buckeyes shot 47.8% from the field and 36% on threes. Their overall shooting percentage was enhanced by hitting 8 of 11 mostly layups in the two overtimes.
The Illini must now await Selection Sunday to find out if they made the NCAA Tournament. Many think they did, but upsets in conference tournaments could still knock them out. If they don't make the NCAA, they will most definitely be in the NIT.
"We think we're good enough to be in the NCAA Tournament," Price exclaimed. "We have to wait for Sunday and see what happens. Regardless, we're gonna keep playing hard and as well as we can."