Illinois coach Bruce Weber was relieved to get out of Long Island with a win.
"I don't think we understood how hard they'd play. We talked about Western Kentucky last year. They don't understand. Like Bradley, this was the game of their lives. This was their National Championship game. This was the biggest game in their history."
The Illini started off sluggishly. Making bad pass after bad pass, the Illini played like they thought they would win in a cake walk. Stony Brook got off to a quick 7-0 lead before Mike Davis hit a jumper.
After a Mike Tisdale swish, Davis hit two more to give Illinois the lead. The rest of the half was a game of runs with each side balancing the other. Demetri McCamey's bomb preceding the buzzer gave the Illini a 38-36 lead at the half.
Finding the going easier against a smaller, less physical team than Big 10 foes, Davis made all seven of his first half shots as the Illini blistered the nets at a 62% clip. But ten first half turnovers gave the Seawolves 15 extra points to counter the shooting differential. Stony Brook guard Bryan Dougher, who shot 52% from the arc in America East Conference play, burned the nets for 15 first half points to neutralize Davis' contribution.
Illinois got off to a hot second half start to extend the lead. D.J. Richardson's long jumper produced the largest lead of the game at 55-43. Stony Brook was ready to fold, and a team with a killer instinct would have put them away with methodical, consistent play. But typical of their play all year, the Illini relaxed and let the Seawolves back in the game.
Stony Brook reduced the deficit to five points but could get no closer. Weber described the second half action.
"We settled down and played better second half. A lot of times teams play with emotions, and then they go into halftime and lose it. We got it up to 10-12, and then we let them hang around. And then we hit some shots and made some plays."
Key among those plays was a Richardson three, a Davis dunk off a Tisdale high-low pass on a designated call from the bench, and Tisdale's second three of the game. The Illini were a perfect 8 for 8 on free throws, four by Tisdale, as the Seawolves fouled at the end.
Weber praised Tisdale's three point shooting ability and appreciated his late game heroics. But overall he felt the big center could have played better, especially in the first half when he had only one of his 6 rebounds.
"I didn't think he played great, to be honest. But he made some big shots, got some rebounds."
McCamey was the statistical leader in four categories, all but scoring. He had 16 points, 9 rebounds, 11 assists, six turnovers and four steals. He began the game putting up forced shots and making unforced errors. But he gradually transformed into his better self.
"Demetri didn't play well, but he almost had a triple double, one rebound short," Weber noted. "He almost had a quadruple double if you count his turnovers."
Richardson also had 16 points including 4 three-pointers. Davis had only the dunk second half to end with 17 points. He had five rebounds, three assists but four turnovers. Tisdale ended with 15 points. Brandon Paul added an important 8 points and five rebounds.
For the game, the Illini shot 52.9% including 45.5% on threes, grabbed 10 more rebounds than the Seawolves but had 17 turnovers. They gave up 22 points off turnovers and 24 points in the paint, allowing Stony Brook to stay in the game.
Dougher ended with 21 points for Stony Brook, but Richardson clamped down on him second half. Star Muhammad El-Amin finished with 16, but he needed 20 shots. Weber praised both Bill Cole and Paul for their defensive efforts on El-Amin. As a team, the Seawolves shot 41% from the field.
With this win, the Illini play Kent State in the Assembly Hall Monday evening in the second round of the NIT. If they win that one, they will play either Dayton or Cincinnati with the winner advancing to Madison Square Garden. The Illini hope to make their second flight to New York two weeks hence.
"It was a good win, a grind out win, and we're still playing basketball," Weber exclaimed.