Illinois beats Wisconsin 58-54.


 

The locker room remained silent before fifth-seeded Illinois met fourth-seeded Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals Friday. That's unusual for a team so casual and laid back that it causes problems.


"They were quiet ahead of time,'' said Illini coach Bruce Weber. "This is a very loose team, bordering on immaturity. I was a little bit afraid they were tense. They came out and really responded. They played their butts off.''


Give up trying to figure this team out. Just when it appeared Illinois lost all energy and confidence, the Illini reminded everyone from the Orange Krush to the NCAA selection committee just how well they can play. Illinois bounced back from a 15-point loss to Wisconsin last weekend in Assembly Hall by leading wire-to-wire in a 58-54 victory.


Limping into town after losing three in a row and five of its last six games, Illinois likely went from out of the NCAA Tournament to somewhere in the field, although Weber and Co. would like to be sure with another victory. Illinois (19-13) plays top-seeded Ohio State (25-7) in the semifinals Saturday (12:40 p.m., CBS).


"I'd feel real good if we win tomorrow,'' Weber said. "We need a good showing. If we wouldn't have won today, it would have been a long shot.''


Illinois has five wins over RPI top 25 teams. Only Kansas has more. But Illinois still tries to cover up a run of bad losses. Weber won't say anything to let his team relax.


"Coach told us we're not in,'' said Illini forward Mike Davis, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds. "Tomorrow if we win, we're definitely in (the NCAAs). Right now, I still think we're on the bubble.''


Center Mike Tisdale scored a game-high 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting with eight rebounds. He sank two 3-pointers after making one in all of the regular season. Illinois' improved defensive intensity led to 28.6-percent shooting by the Badgers.


"It was the overall intensity,'' Tisdale said. "It's a whole different ballclub today. We came out fired up, everybody getting in a stance and talking. We had energy that was missing at home. It's another day to live.''


Weber doesn't plan on going home early. He brought three suits.


"Three suits and three ties,'' he said. But the Illini haven't walked off the floor with a good feeling in consecutive games since early February, the last time the team won two straight games or more.


"When we beat Michigan State and Wisconsin back to back,'' said Illini guard Demetri McCamey, who had 13 points and eight assists. "It's been awhile. At the same time, it's a new season and a new team. The guys realize it's the end of the season. If you lose, you go home.


"We can't get happy. Once we got happy, we lost five of the last six. We're using that as motivation.''


Weber and the players credited two rugged practices with competitive drills and running that put some intensity back into the Illini's mindset.


"All of the things we didn't do well on Sunday against them, I thought our guys did a great job in preparation and listening,'' Weber said. "We executed what we talked about. We didn't do a good job on defense and rebounding Sunday. We won the battle of the boards (40-33). We told Demetri and Mike Davis they needed their best defensive effort of the year.''


Illinois led 46-30 with 6 minutes 45 seconds left before Wisconsin rallied to within 56-54 on a 3-pointer by Trevon Hughes. Reserve guard Jeff Jordan made a free throw before Wisconsin's Jason Bohannon missed a 3-point attempt that would have tied it.


Following another free throw by Davis, Illini forward Bill Cole forced a turnover.


Forward Jon Leuer led Wisconsin (23-8) with 14 points. Hughes and Bohannon combined for 5-for-26 shooting. Hughes scored 12 points in a span of 1:20 before fouling out with 24 seconds left.


"I've never played darts with anybody thinking that I was the better guy,'' Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "As a coach, when you say better team, we split with Illinois during the year. Illinois has a very good team.''


NOTES: Illinois advanced to the semifinals for 12 times in the tournament's 13 years. … Davis ranks second in the Big Ten with 13 double-doubles. … Hughes was 12-for-44 in the three games against Illinois this season.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.


 


Illinois report card


Front court -- A


Wisconsin still managed some offensive rebounds, but those 10 rebounds on offense were seven fewer than last weekend. Mike Tisdale scored. Mike Davis played some defense, and forward Bill Cole shut down Wisconsin guard Jason Bohannon.


Back court -- A


Demetri McCamey did a good job of running the offense and finding Tisdale. D.J. Richardson lost four turnovers in the first half but bounced back by finishing with 12 points.


Bench -- B-


It's that time of year when coach Bruce Weber finds it even more difficult to work his way down the bench. Jeff Jordan made one crucial free throw late, while his father watched from a luxury box.


Overall -- A


Illinois won a classic Big Ten grinder. Defense and rebounding -- not exactly two strengths for the Illini -- played key roles. Now Illinois must find a way to stop Evan Turner and his friends. Ohio State "toyed'' with Illinois twice this season, Weber admitted.