Jeff Eisenberg

Illinois, gasp, plays its way into the NCAA tournament

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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In a week of puzzling losses and perplexing meltdowns from teams on the bubble, the unthinkable finally happened Friday afternoon: Someone actually played their way into the NCAA tournament.

Surprisingly enough, that team was Illinois, which moved closer to locking up an at-large berth with a 58-54 victory over Wisconsin in the Big Ten quarterfinals. Despite suffering five losses in six games to close the regular season, Illinois (19-13, 10-8) now owns two victories over the Badgers and one apiece against Clemson, Vanderbilt and Michigan State, probably enough to make up for a bloated RPI in the 70s.

You might not have guessed that the Illini would have much chance against Wisconsin considering how they struggled in a convincing 72-57 home loss to the very same Badgers less than a week ago.

How bad was that loss? Well, after junior Demitri McCamey committed a turnover and a needless intentional foul during the second half, he bumped shoulders with coach Bruce Weber walking back to the bench. Weber pulled his star guard back into the huddle by his wrist and unleashed a torrent of cuss words at him, McCamey refusing to make eye contact the entire time.

There was no sign of ill will between Weber and McCamey on Friday, let alone another public blow-up. Illinois started quickly and led by as much as 46-30 before Wisconsin finally showed a pulse, launching a late comeback bid that fell short.

Illinois has now probably done enough to secure a bid thanks to its underachieving bubble peers, but it's not unthinkable that the Illini might have another win or two in them.

Up next is a Ohio State team playing its second game in two days with a six man rotation. Then in the title game the Illini would likely face either a Michigan State team they've already beaten this season or a Purdue team that still has a lot to prove without Robbie Hummel.

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