Illinois was going through its typical routine 40 minutes before game time. Every player took turns dunking the ball to excite themselves and the crowd.
Just before returning to the locker, senior walkon Bubba Chisholm represented for the entire team and excited an electric crowd by dunking the ball and doing a chin-up on the rim. Demetri McCamey followed by hitting a half court bank. Unfortunately, that was their last moment in the sun.
Dayton exposed weaknesses that plagued Illinois all year. They had faster, stronger athletes that were more physical, more aggessive and more determined to win. They put a beatdown on the Illini both literally and figuratively, benefitting from loose officiating to mug the home team into submission.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber was not surprised by the outcome.
"Kudos to Brian and the Dayton Flyers. Our staff felt it would be a tough matchup for us. Their style of play, their quickness and athleticism, their (7) seniors, how hard they play. They seemed like the team that was much more on their toes than we were. They kicked us in the face right from the start. We finally scrambled to get back into it at the end."
Dayton intimidated the Illini from the start. Their defense allowed little breathing room, their transition was breathtaking, and their shooting was exceptional. The Illini feared the fast break enough that offensive rebounds were out of the question until late in the contest.
D.J. Richardson's three to begin the game was their only lead. Nine Flyers scored in the first half as they arrived in swarms. It was a nightmare half, with the Illini dragging their tails between their legs. A Tyler Griffey three pulled the Illini to within 38-25 at the half, but that was little consolation.
The Illini came out more fired up and determined second half. They made several runs only to see the Flyers regain their double digit lead. The Illini were still struggling to reduce the deficit under 10 when Mike Tisdale fouled out with 7:53 remaining. It was 67-53 when London Warren made one of two free throws.
A Richardson three, two Mike Davis freebies and a steal McCamey converted made it 67-60. Bill Cole popped a three to bring it to 6. Tyler Griffey hit a putback, free throw and three pointer to help reduce the deficit to five, but each time the Illini came close, the Flyers responded. The game wasn't as close as the 77-71 final.
Dayton coach Brian Gregory was magnanimous in victory.
"It was a great challenge and opportunity for us to play, to be honest after watching film, a team that probably should be playing in the other tournament. I have an unbelieveable amount of respect for Bruce and the way his team played. The type of guys he has in his program. To me, that makes this victory even more satisfying, to beat a really good team on their home court."
He agreed it was his team's blazing speed and dominant tenacity that proved the difference.
"We talked about the pace we wanted to play at. We're an athletic, explosive team. We have to play to our strengths, and that is to push the ball. When our guards play well and we make shots, we're pretty good.
"I thought our speed and athletic ability might be effective. If we could get them moving, it would help. At the level we played at, it was even more effective."
McCamey admitted surprise at the tempo of the game.
"They got the ball out quicker than we expected. They were flying and getting to the basket. It did cause us problems in the first half. With a good team like Dayton, once you get down by 15, it's gonna be hard to come back. We dug ourselves a hole and just couldn't finish.
"You've got to give Dayton credit. They came out with intensity, turned the pressure up and got easy points in transition. You can't give up that many transition points and expect to win the game."
The Flyers shot 48.1% for the game, including 44.4% on threes, while the Illini were held to 37.7% from the floor and 23.1% from three. Weber knew the Illini would be in trouble if Dayton made shots.
"I said before the game the big thing would be who makes shots. In their case, because of their athleticism and how they run out in transition, if they start making threes, now they spread you and get layups.
"We could explain how quick they were, how they pushed it, but we couldn't simulate it in practice. We haven't faced that in our league. They were flying by and dunking, and we weren't ready for it.
McCamey had 13 points and 10 assists, but he made only 6 of 19 shots. Weber felt the Flyers were a big reason for that.
"I thought they disrupted us, they really disrupted Demetri. He got 10 assists, but he should have had 19 assists and 10 shots. He should have just given in and let the defense come to him. I thought he was frustrated, but he's been great. Obviously, if we don't have him, we're not in games."
Illinois ended the season like it began, promise fulfilled inconsistently. Weber saw parallels as well.
"It was a mirror of what happened all year, not always being ready, not ready for physical play and then trying to make a frantic comeback a little bit too late."
McCamey was asked what this loss might do to team morale.
"I think it should help, everybody being more hungry so we won't have to be in the NIT next year. It makes you want to work harder to improve your game.
"We need to work on everything. To be a team and be successful, we have to work on offense, moving without the ball, and especially defense, getting stops at key points in time. Finishing games, playing the whole 40 minutes and not just the last 20. We need to become better players this summer and be one unit instead of being a team when times are good."
McCamey broke the single-season assist average record with 7.1 assists per game, topping 6.77 set by Deron Williams in the 2004-05 season. But he didn't consider himself successful.
"Not really. You judge a point guard not on stats but on number of wins. I didn't get my team into the NCAA Tournnament, and we didn't win ball games down the stretch. So I don't consider the year a success."
Illinois finishes 21-15 on the year.