Illinois remembers its last trip to the Kohl Center quite well. But then again, who could forget Wisconsin's Devin Harris hitting the second of two free throws with four-tenths of a second left on the clock, giving the Badgers a 60-59 win?
Not the Illini players. Not when it gave Wisconsin its second straight conference title and first outright championship in 56 years. Not when Illinois was oh so close to wrapping up its third consecutive crown.
The Illini scored seven unanswered points in the final two minutes of that contest on March 5, 2003, only to be thwarted when Harris drew a foul on a drive to the basket that began with 6.9 seconds left. Harris missed the first free throw but knocked down the second, causing euphoria to reverberate through the Kohl Center and eliciting then-Illinois coach Bill Self to state afterward, "Badger fans will think I'm crazy, but the wrong team won."
The Illini certainly have the taste of that defeat in their mouths and Saturday, when they return to the Kohl Center floor, they will be riding the momentum of a two-game conference winning streak. After faltering out of the gate to a 1-2 Big Ten start, Illinois posted a win over Iowa, then dismantled Penn State 80-37 Wednesday night.
As Illinois' players gathered in the locker room after that game, memories of last season resurfaced.
"Somebody brought up, ‘hey, remember last year…they basically took a championship from us. Let's not let it slip out of our hands this year,'" first-year Illinois coach Bruce Weber said in a teleconference Thursday. "It will hopefully be a motivating factor."
"It was a great atmosphere and a great game," Wisconsin junior forward Mike Wilkinson said Thursday. "It came down to the wire, Devin ended up making that free throw.
"They are a bunch of great players. They are real talented and they can get the job done. We just need to make them uncomfortable, make their shots difficult and hopefully we'll make some more plays than they do."
If last year was not motivation enough, Weber insists that his team, which lost a home game to Purdue and lost at Northwestern earlier this season, needs a marquee road win such as at Wisconsin to get back in the Big Ten race.
"We have to somehow get a game that maybe somebody else isn't going to get—at Wisconsin, maybe at Purdue, which would allow us to maybe get back in the race," Weber said. "I have talked about it before when you get a big win on the road in a close game, you make plays, it really brings the team together."
When asked about Illinois' recent difficulty playing at Wisconsin, Weber laughed and acknowledged that, in fact, no conference team has beaten the Badgers on their court during Ryan's two-plus years on campus.
"We are going to have to play a special game," Weber said. "We are going to have to do all the little things—out-hustle them, out-fight them. They just consistently play. They guard. They don't beat themselves, especially at home. So we're going to have to go up there and earn a victory."
Wisconsin has won 23 straight at home in all games, the fifth-longest active streak in the nation and third longest in school history. During that span, only two games—last season's Illinois contest and a 63-59 win over Marquette earlier this season—have been decided by less than 11 points.
"I looked at it as more of a target on our backs being ranked and playing tough here at home," Wilkinson said. "We just have to go out and take care of business. If we come out, do what we need to do at both ends of the floor, we feel we have a shot in every game we play. We have to stay within ourselves and take care of our business here at home."
The Badgers know all about the thrill of snapping a home winning streak, ending Michigan's State's 53-game run with a 64-63 win in East Lansing two years ago.
"It's nice to beat that home winning streak," senior center Dave Mader said. "We did it against Michigan State a couple years ago. It felt nice, it was a great win for us. But really in the end, it's about the ‘W'."
Illini gag order
Weber changed up his team's routine following the Penn State win by making them unavailable for comment prior to the Saturday's showdown with Wisconsin.
"They seem to like to do a lot of talking," Weber said of his team. "I want the actions to do the talking and I want the performance and the production to do the talking. See if we can be better focused when we go on the road. It's obvious we didn't do a very good job at Northwestern. As a coach you are always looking for something that might make a little difference."