CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)—Leading by 15 over Wisconsin after a pair of free throws by Chester Frazier, No. 25 Illinois appeared ready to wrap up another of the blowout wins they’ve gotten accustomed to this month.
But the Badgers have a way of melting the Illini—they’ve won the teams’ last five meetings, including three last season over a young Illinois team that finished 16-19.
Right on cue Saturday, Wisconsin cut the lead to seven with just over five minutes left.
Turns out, this version of the Illini can handle a little heat.
Illinois held off the Badgers late, snuffing a would-be rally with eight straight points from Demetri McCamey and winning 64-57.
“They’ve had the best end of us the last couple of years,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “A couple of times we had an opportunity to knock them out but they kept coming back. We told the guys that it doesn’t matter what the score is as long as we won. We found a way to win.”
McCamey had 25 points to lead Illinois’ scoring, going 11-of-13 from the free throw line.
But defense, as much as anything, helped the Illini improve to 17-3, 5-2 in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin (12-7, 3-4) hit just 35.6 percent of its shots from the field.
“With their bigs it’s tough to get to the rim and their perimeter defenders are now much more mature,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “You’ve got guys now that handled a tough year last year and keep believing that you’re just going to get better, and they are.”
Illinois entered the game with the league’s toughest scoring defense, allowing 56.6 points per game. They had won three of their five January games coming into Saturday, and all by at least 14 points.
Sophomore forward Mike Davis added 10 points for the Illini, whose 13-5 run to open the second half created that 15-point lead.
The run started with a 3-pointer by McCamey and ended with four straight points from the line—two as a result of a foul by Joe Krabbenhoft and two more following a technical foul on Wisconsin coach Ryan for complaining about an official’s call.
From the end of the first half, when he disputed an official’s decision to wave off what would have been a buzzer-beating shot, Ryan had a running skirmish with the officials, including the technical and at least two warnings for the Badgers bench to pipe down.
Ryan was baffled by the technical.
“I was applauding Joe Krabbenhoft for taking (a) charge,” he said. “Maybe someone behind me said something on the bench, but there was no explanation and we had to move on.”
Krabbenhoft led Wisconsin with 16 points before fouling out in the closing seconds. Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes added 13 points each.
Wisconsin cut the lead to seven twice late in the game and to six with 52 seconds left on a 3-pointer by Krabbenhoft. But McCamey almost single-handedly held off the Badgers with his eight late points.
As much as anything, the Illini’s tenacious, team-first defense was the difference between this and the last five meetings between the teams.
Krabbenhoft has terrorized the Illini in the past, and with the game tied 11-11 early in the first half, the 6-7 senior found himself with the ball in an unenviable situation for Illinois: back to the basket, 6 feet out with 6-5 reserve guard Calvin Brock to beat.
Krabbenhoft faked to his right, then turned left, but found a face full of Brock’s arms and hands and no room to shoot—a story that unfolded all game for the Badgers.
Wisconsin was just 21-of-59 from the field, and just 9-of-27 in the first half. The Badgers never led the game after the first 5 minutes.
Illinois took the lead for good with a 13-2 run during which Wisconsin was 1-of-7 from the field and turned the ball over three times.