Illinois’ run at Big Ten Tournament ended by Wisconsin

By Jason Grodsky

INDIANAPOLIS – Illinois’ run at a ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament berth fell short on Sunday.

Needing to win the Big Ten Tournament to receive the conference’s automatic bid to the “Big Dance,” the 10th-seeded Illini were unable to finish off their incredible run to the tournament’s title game, falling 61-48 to top-seed Wisconsin in Indianapolis.

The No. 8-ranked Badgers claimed both the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles with their title game victory over the Illini. Despite being handed their 19th loss of the season, the program’s most losses in a season ever, the Illini’s late season run provided a sense of optimism for the future in spite of the disappointment in the present.

“We made a great run, but it’s unfortunate it came so late,” senior forward Brian Randle said. “It’s tough we couldn’t finish it off with a win. We came in here feeling great on the verge of winning a championship and making the NCAA. It’s a tough day but I know the future is bright for these guys.”

It was the third time this year Wisconsin (29-4) has beat Illinois (16-19).Sunday, the Badgers did it with defense and precise outside shooting, holding Illinois to 40.4 percent shooting from the field while knocking down nine three pointers to claim their second tournament title in the program’s history.

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    Senior forward Shaun Pruitt led the Illini with a game-high 13 points and eight rebounds, earning a spot on the Big Ten’s All-Tournament Team. Pruitt said the entire team’s effort was special in the tournament, not just his own, but they couldn’t keep their poise against the Badgers.

    The margin for error against Wisconsin is too little,” Pruitt said. “If you make mistakes they will capitalize on them.”

    Freshman guard Demetri McCamey also earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team, finishing with an average of 10 points per game in his first conference tournament.

    Junior guard Calvin Brock provided the spark off the bench for the Orange and Blue, scoring 10 points and grabbing five rebounds against Wisconsin, but the Badgers proved too much in the end for a tied Illini squad.

    Wisconsin junior Marcus Landry was named the tournament’s MVP, scoring 10 points in the final. Badgers’ senior Brian Butch also added 12 points while Michael Flowers added nine and was Wisconsin’s other All-Tournament Team selection.

    “(Wisconsin) plays solid and methodical,” Randle said. “They just wear you down. We got a little worried at times and tried to do too much. We tried to make a punch but they hit back.”

    Playing in their fourth game in as many days, Illinois couldn’t get over the hump against the Badgers, never leading after Wisconsin took a 13-10 lead midway through the first half. Wisconsin pulled away from the Illini with a 19-8 run that started at the end of the first half and continued to the beginning of the second half, giving them a 41-28 lead.

    Illinois’ three previous games against Penn State, Purdue and Minnesota took a toll on the team heading into Sunday. The player’s fatigue greatly affected the Illini’s outside shooting, leaving most of their perimeter shots short. Illinois made just 3-of-13 shots from behind the arc.

    “It’s tough to go through four games but they gave it their all,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “We thought if we could pressure a little bit we could get after them. We did that but we didn’t take advantage of our opportunities and our open looks.”

    The last time the Illini missed the NCAA tournament was in 1999 after a similar Big Ten Tournament run that saw the Illini make the championship game as the 11-seed before losing to top-seed Michigan State 67-50 in the final.

    Despite the loss the Illini could still be playing basketball come next week if they receive a bid to the inaugural College Basketball Invitational (CBI).

    “It’s disappointing not to be playing in the tournament,” Weber said. “We finally seemed to figure things out at the end and got some guys to buy in to the system. But if we could’ve done that sooner we would be sitting there waiting to see where we were going (in the NCAA Tournament) because we were a capable team of getting there.”