CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)—Illinois coach Bruce Weber talked Sunday night about what his 16th-ranked team could achieve this season—a top-10 ranking, and maybe more.
But what he saw on the court against lightly regarded Northern Colorado made Weber think his Illini right now are closer to ordinary than anything special.
The Illini (10-1) led by 19 at halftime and at least 10 during the whole second half, but their 86-76 win in front of a crowd kept small by snowy, windy weather was too close for Weber’s comfort.
“I think it started with the warmup. We didn’t warm up well—too loose,” Weber said. “It’s fine to be loose and enjoy each other as a team, but when you come to the court, you’ve got to be business.”
The Illini, playing in front of 5,100 fans in an arena that holds more than 16,600, knew it, too.
“We should’ve blew them out, honestly,” said Mike Davis, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds. “But we just kind of messed around and let them hang around.”
Illinois won six straight before Sunday night, a run that included victories over North Carolina and Gonzaga and was characterized by tough defense and a long list of scoring threats. Five Illini average at least nine points a game.
Scoring wasn’t the problem Sunday—five Illini were in double figures, led by 14 points each from Mike Tisdale and D.J. Richardson.
But five Bears were in double figures, too. And the 76 points scored by Northern Colorado (4-4) were more than Illinois had given up since the first game of its win streak, against Maryland.
“The thing I’m scared about right now, our defense has definitely slipped,” Weber said.
Bears coach B.J. Hill had his own frustrations—primarily 24 turnovers.
“We had a season high in turnovers,” he said. “That was because we were trying to do our own thing. You saw what we could do in the second half, when we play (as a team)”
The Bears trailed 45-26 at halftime but outscored Illinois 50-41 after the intermission.
They started with an 11-5 run over the first 3 minutes of the second half, pulling to 50-37 on a 3-pointer by Neal Kingman with 17:07 to play.
After a shout of frustration from Davis that echoed through a quiet arena, Brandon Paul and Demetri McCamey hit 3s of their own to extend the lead to 56-39 with 15:52 left.
But the Bears crawled back again.
They closed to 67-54 with just under 11 minutes to play on a 3-pointer by Chris Kaba, then pulled within 10 on three free throws by Devon Beitzel.
The 3-pointer prompted Weber, who had gone to a reserve-heavy lineup, to pull Davis and Tisdale off the bench and put them back in the game.
And, as Weber called a timeout after the last free throw by Beitzel, Hill reminded his players how they’d closed the gap.
“You’re back in this game because you’re making shots,” he said on the bench.
The Bears shot 36.7 percent in the first half but were 14 for 22 (63.6 percent) in the second.
But it was Richardson who made the next two big shots.
The first was a 3-pointer that pushed Illinois’ lead back to a comfortable 70-57 just over 9 minutes to play.
The second was another 3 off a feed from McCamey. The senior guard pulled up to shoot a 3 of his own as a Bears defender moved toward him, brought the ball back down and, glancing to his right, saw Richardson and fed him in one easy move.
The basket made the score 75-59 with 7:37 to go.
Northern Colorado closed the gap again late, but only after going cold over most of the final 6 1/2 minutes.
Hill said the Bears pulled close enough to Illinois a few times in the second half for him to think maybe they could catch the Illini.
“Every time I did, D.J. hit a shot,” Hill said. “That’s what makes this team so hard to play against. They’ve got so many weapons.”
Cole scored 12 points for Illinois and McCamey had 11—nine in the second half after a quiet first 20 minutes.
Kingman led the Bears with 21 points. Lloyd Elliot added 16, while Beitzel had 13, Emmanuel Addo 12 and Kaba 10.