After failing to live up to expectations all year, the Illinois Fighting Illini finally showed what they were made of. In their most complete performance of the season, Illinois dominated the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in a 73-62 victory that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Mike Davis led the Illini with 22 points and 9 rebounds while Demetri McCamey added 17 points and 7 assists.
To be honest, I really didn’t know what to expect out of the Illini in this game. In a season full of letdowns, it wouldn’t have really surprised me if they had another one. UNLV was going to be a tough challenge with their pressure defense. The Illini had shown weakness against this type of defense before, and I was worried they would be overwhelmed. But rather than fold under the pressure, Illinois rose up and delivered a fantastic performance.
Both teams started out quick and after seven minutes, Illinois held a 14-12 lead. Then the Illini took over. Bolstered by strong defense and a willingness to push the pace (finally), Illinois went on a 15-0 run. It was really refreshing to see them get out and use their athleticism in transition. It’s been something I’ve wanted to see all season, but hasn’t happened enough. This team has the talent and the depth to run teams off the court, and they finally did that. Using this to their advantage, the Illini shot 63% en route to a 46-24 halftime lead.
While the lead ended up shrinking to 11 by the final buzzer, the game was never really in doubt. The Illini sustained their strong play throughout the majority of the second half before getting sloppy at the end. A flurry of turnovers by Illinois and three pointers by UNLV made the score somewhat respectable for the Runnin’ Rebels.
After calling out the seniors in my last post, I can do nothing but sing their praises here. These kids realized what was on the line, and they played their hearts out. This goes especially for McCamey and Davis. They stepped up to the challenge and delivered the kind of performances we’ve been expecting out of them all season.
McCamey controlled this game from the start. He dictated the fast pace and put pressure on the UNLV defense all night. He was able to break down the defense at will and either score himself or create for others. He also knocked down several big threes at opportune moments.
And then there was Mike Davis. This might have been his most impressive performance in an Illinois uniform. He has probably been the most outspoken of the Illini, and he really backed up his talk today. He was all over the court, whether it was knocking down tough shots or grabbing rebounds. His hustle was also rewarded as he scored several buckets in transition.
It was also really exciting to see the underclassmen perform well under pressure in their first NCAA Tournament. Brandon Paul had 8 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists as he provided his usual energy. D.J. Richardson finally broke out of his slump and knocked down several huge threes to protect the big lead. Rarely used guard Crandall Head played key minutes in the first half and showcased his athleticism with an acrobatic layup.
The only negative on the evening was the absence of Jereme Richmond. Even before the game started, I had read rumors that something was going on with him. I have no idea what’s actually going on and I don’t want to speculate at this point. After the game, coach Bruce Weber said Richmond violated team rules and there will be more information to come. I’m hoping this is only a one game thing, but there seem to be quite a few issues with Mr. Richmond. He missed a game earlier this year due to personal reasons, and some thought he was close to transferring. Hopefully he can get it together, because he is an extremely talented player that can help the Illini in the future.
Now that Illinois has taken care of business against one former coach (Lon Kruger), they can look forward to another one (Bill Self). However, I can assure you that Self’s Jayhawks will put up a much better fight than Kruger’s Runnin’ Rebels. Kansas may be the most talented team in the nation, and it will take a monumental effort to beat them. But if the Illini play with the effort and determination that they showed against UNLV, an upset over Kansas is not out of the question. After all, its March Madness, and anything can happen.
About the Author
Written by Jason Patt
My name is Jason Patt and I recently graduated from the University of Illinois. I received a degree in Sports Management and also minored in Communication and Business. I am an avid follower of Illinois sports and also most major Chicago sports teams. Along with blogging about Illini basketball here, I'm an editor at Bulls 101.