The Illinois Fighting Illini made a strong case to the NCAA Tournament selection committee on Friday afternoon, topping 18th-ranked Wisconsin 58-54 to advance to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
Illinois had lost five of its previous six games, putting its tournament chances in danger, but Bruce Weber’s bunch passed a key test against the cold-shooting Badgers. Illinois led throughout, thanks in large part to a Wisconsin offense that was absolutely dreadful until a late flurry that cut the deficit to as little as two (56-54) in the final minute.
As one might expect from a 7-foot-1 pivot who can hit the three and create shots off the dribble, Illinois' Mike Tisdale was the very definition of “matchup problem.” Tisdale and teammate Demetri McCamey ran the pick-and-roll to near-perfection, as the towering Tisdale finished with 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting, hitting both of his 3-point attempts. McCamey had eight assists to go with 13 points.
Star senior guard Trevon Hughes finished with 14 points for Wisconsin, but had one of the worst games of his otherwise excellent career, missing his first 11 shots. Hughes didn’t hit a shot from the field until 1:46 left, when he made his first of four quick 3-pointers. Hughes made it four treys in 1:13 by hitting from deep with 33 seconds to play, cutting the Illinois lead to two, but then fouled out on the ensuing Illinois possession, ending his attempt to join Evan Turner in the "miracle man" category on Big Ten Quarterfinal Friday.
Instead, a mental error typified Hughes' day. Hughes was called for carrying the ball on a must-score possession, with Wisconsin trailing by eight just under the three-minute mark of regulation. On the ensuing Illini possession, McCamey nailed a three with two seconds left on the shot clock to put Illinois ahead by 11.
Hughes’ backcourt mate, UW sniper Jason Bohannon, missed a three-point attempt with less than 20 seconds remaining that would have – believe it or not – tied the score at 57. It just wasn’t meant to be for the cold-shooting Badgers, who trailed 29-20 at halftime after shooting just 6-of-33 from the field in the first half. Until the late frenzy from Hughes, the outlook never got much better for Bo Ryan's club.
With their postseason lives on the line and looking to bounce back from a rough end of the regular season, the Illini earned the key victory they had to have on their resume. Their effort was consistent on Friday and their execution was sharp, save for the harrowing final minute.
Now that its NCAA bid seems safe, Illinois gets a chance to move up the ladder in a Saturday semifinal matchup against the top-seeded Ohio State Buckeyes, who needed a stunning halfcourt buzzer-beater by national Player of the Year Evan Turner to outlast a desperate Illinois team. Turner is always the focus of opposing defenses, but the Illini must also cover another Buckeye bomber, Jon Diebler, who hit 13 treys in two blowout wins over Illinois during the regular season.
At the offensive end for Illlinois, the McCamey/Tisdale pick-and-roll combo can be deadly. If Tisdale stays out of foul trouble and continues to hit outside shots, the tandem will be a problem for any opponent, including the powerful Buckeyes.