INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Illinois coach Bruce Weber unveiled his own two-step dance in Friday’s Big Ten quarterfinal.
The Fighting Illini needed every bit of his body english and anything else Weber could give them to hold off No. 13 Wisconsin.
Mike Tisdale scored 21 points and Demetri McCamey had 13, just enough to fend off a frantic comeback and hold on for a 58-54 victory that may clinch a spot in next week’s NCAA tourney. Not that the Illini are thinking that far ahead yet.
“The thought is we’re in the Big Ten tournament right now, we’re not any further than that,” Tisdale said. “We’re going to go back to the hotel and get some good food and get ready for Ohio State.”
It’s the 12th time in 13 years Illinois (19-13) has reached the semifinal round.
But Friday’s game was as challenging as the past month has been for the Illini. They ended a three-game losing streak by beating a ranked team, their seventh game against a Top 15 foe since Feb. 6.
Things won’t get any easier Saturday. The Fighting Illini face No. 5 Ohio State, which shared the Big Ten’s regular-season title with No. 6 Purdue and No. 11 Michigan State. The Buckeyes advanced after conference player of the year Evan Turner hit a 37-foot buzzer-beating heave to eliminate Michigan 69-68.
So the question in Indy is whether Illinois has done enough to join the field of 65.
It started the day with four wins over teams ranked among the top 50 in RPI, matching the nation’s fourth-highest total. Only Kansas, Georgetown and Syracuse had more. Now they have a second win over Wisconsin (23-8), which won its final four regular-season games and had hoped to give coach Bo Ryan career win No. 600 on Friday.
Is it enough to keep Weber dancing?
“We knew it couldn’t hurt,” Tisdale said after grabbing eight rebounds and making two 3-pointers—one more than he had all season.
These weren’t the same Badgers, though.
They went 6 of 33 from the field in the first half, and finished the game shooting just 28.6 percent. Illinois, meanwhile, made 65 percent of its shots against the league’s best scoring defense in the first 20 minutes.
It wasn’t until Trevon Hughes finally got the Badgers back in sync after they trailed by 16 late in the second half that they started playing better. The senior finished with 14 points, matching Jon Leuer, for team scoring honors and Hughes’ flurry of 3s in the final 2 minutes kept Weber toe-tapping the sideline until the final buzzer sounded.
“Those 3s without a doubt, that triggered, we had some other big shots in there, too, and we had some good stops,” Ryan said. “That’s the recipe for a good comeback. I really thought that once we got it down there that we could close that.”
Weber was worried, too, when Wisconsin got a chance to force overtime with Jason Bohannon’s 3 from the right wing with 15.9 seconds left. The shot clanked off the front of the rim, Mike Davis grabbed the rebound, drew a foul and made 1 of 2 free throws to seal it.
Davis finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
It shouldn’t have even been that close.
D.J. Richardson’s 3 with 6:44 left gave the Illini what looked like an insurmountable 46-30 lead.
Instead, Jordan Taylor and Bohannon hit back-to-back 3s for the Badgers and Leuer followed with a 19-footer. Suddenly, the Badgers were within 46-38 with 3:58 left.
Then, after Illinois made it 50-38, Hughes almost single-handedly shot the Badgers back into the game.
He and Keaton Nankivil knocked down five consecutive 3s for Wisconsin, the last coming when the 6-foot guard hit an arching rainbow jumper over 6-foot-9 Bill Cole with 31.4 seconds left. That made it 56-54 and kept the nervous Weber on his toes.
Hughes fouled out on Illinois’ next possession, sending Jeff Jordan to the free-throw line. Jordan made the first but missed the second, giving Bohannon the chance to tie it.
Only after Davis had the rebound and made the free throw, to make it a two-possession game, could Weber relax.
“Hughes didn’t go down quiet, Bohannon, two seniors that have had tremendous careers hit some big shots and put a scare into us, but we still won,” Weber said. “The most important thing is we’re playing tomorrow, and that’s what we continue to do, living one day at a time.”