Illini Overwhelm Kent State, Await Dayton

The Fighting Illini basketball team, showing maturity and an eagerness to compete, broke away from a decent Kent State team in the second half to complete a 75-58 shellacking in the Assembly Hall. A surprisingly good crowd of 10,032 gave the Illini the lift they needed to finish off a decisive victory. A speedy Dayton team visits Wednesday.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber praised the crowd afterward.

"Ten thousand people with spring break going on, the students gone and half the people in the community gone. That's an amazing turnout."

Junior forward Mike Davis agreed.

"The energy was great. The crowd was awesome. We probably had the biggest crowd in the NIT. The crowd was the 6th man."

Even Kent State coach Geno Ford chimed in on the crowd, praising their understanding of basketball.

"They're on spring break, but they had thousands of people here and the building was loud. The level of fan support is pretty high, and they're fairly educated. They cheer when it's not going well, and that's actually important instead of waiting for something good to happen."

The fans saw Illinois play one of its best second halves of the season, showing teamwork and an ability to put a team away. They also saw tremendous individual performances. Davis had his 15th double-double of the year with 16 points and 16 boards. His rebound total set a new Illini NIT record, surpassing Eddie Johnson by one.

Mike Tisdale also set an Illinois NIT record with four blocked shots. That was on top of his 17 points and 7 rebounds. Tisdale hit 7 of 9 shots and all three of his free throws.

Fellow junior Demetri McCamey became the first player in Illini history to make 1200 points and dish out 500 assists in his first three years. If the Illini keep winning, he has a chance to break Deron Williams' season assist record, needing 20 more. McCamey had 15 points and 10 assists against the Golden Flashes.

The game was close the whole first half, with the lead changing hands 6 times. The Illini's biggest lead was four, but they needed a McCamey putback and free throw to tie it at the break 31-31.

It was a different story second half, as Weber explains.

"In the first half we played okay, but we'd get a steal and throw it away, we'd miss some easy shots. We had 8 offensive rebounds but got only a couple baskets out of it. We could just never get in sync.

"I told them at halftime we've got to guard, pick up the pressure. I thought that was key. We made them turn it over and rush a little second half. Turnovers were big for us, only seven. We don't usually control the boards, but I thought that was important."

The Illini burst out to a 39-31 lead before Justin Greene's layin gave the Golden Flashes their first points. Ford said that was the key segment of the game.

"The game was lost the first five minutes of the second half. We didn't make a basket in five minutes, and we didn't get stops on them. We knew Illinois was gonna make a run. They're a great team, and this is a great atmosphere."

Illinois six straight, extending the lead to 49-38 on a McCamey jumper off transition. Kent State fought back to within six points, but McCamey went on a personal seven point burst. He penetrated for a layin and then showed uncharacteristically dominant defense by stealing the ball out front and completing a three point play. His jumper on the next possession reestablished the 11 point lead.

Tisdale got hot late, hitting nine points. D.J. Richardson popped a three, Davis a long jumper and Brandon Paul three free throws to complete the scoring. Reserves finished out the game. For a change, the Illini continued to force the action with offensive movement, crisp passing and intelligent decision-making to finish off the discouraged Golden Flashes.

Ford was blunt afterward.

"If you don't think Illinois is a good team, you don't know basketball. They can really shoot the ball. They have a great coach. They're certainly one of the 65 best. They just absolutely kicked our butts the second half."

Illinois shot 48.5% for the game, 58.1% in the second half. They out rebounded the smaller Kent State team by 7 and had 13 offensive boards. They had 19 assists with only 7 turnovers. In contrast, the Golden Flashes could manage only 38.9% shooting for the game after hitting 50% of their shots first half.

Besides the big three scorers, Brandon Paul added 9 points, while D.J. Richardson and Dominique Keller hit for 8 each for Illinois. Weber praised Paul's recent improvement.

"Brandon's getting more and more comfortable. I know he doesn't like me not letting him shoot threes, but his percentage is not very good. I'm not gonna stymie him, I just wanted him to do all the other stuff. He gives us pretty good energy, he rebounds, he made a couple big plays when we made the run in the second half."

Keller made his first contribution in several games. Weber was pleased with the result.

"I had serious doubts about Dominique around the Big 10 Tournament. I told him I haven't quit on him, but he's quit on himself. He had to come with a better attitude and show me he actually cared and practice hard. He's been much better in practice, and he gave us some nice energy minutes the first half. We got something out of him which was important."

Davis apologized for a comment he made late last week about wanting to be in the NCAA Tournament and not the NIT. He proved himself on the court and in the post game press conference.

"I let my emotions get control of me a little bit. The NCAA Tournament is going on, and I said a couple things I shouldn't have said. I just want to compete in the NIT and try to win a championship. Only two teams can end their seasons with a win, and I hope we're one of them."

McCamey expressed similar sentiments. It appears the Illini are now engaged in the challenge of playing for an NIT crown.

"These have been the best practices we've had these last couple days. Everybody just wants to keep playing and not go home on a loss. We want to accomplish something by trying to win the NIT. That would help us look forward to next season."

Weber shared concepts like humility, togetherness, coachability and hunger when describing his team's recent attitude. He hopes the maturation process will continue Wednesday when the Illini face Dayton and beyond.

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