McCamey contributes to game in new way

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Jeff LaBelle

INDIANAPOLIS – It was an unusual sight Saturday when Demetri McCamey pulled up for two early three pointers, each one an open look, only to watch them fall drastically short against Minnesota. After a 6-for-6 display from long range the night before, he wondered if maybe it was time for him to shift shapes a little, to change his game up and find a new niche.

The freshman guard lit up the stat sheet Friday with 26 points against Purdue, each one a catalyst in upsetting the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament 74-67 in overtime. But against the Golden Gophers, with legs that weren’t fully rested from the 42 minutes he played the night before, McCamey put his passing skills on display.

“I came out, I shot a couple fast shots and they didn’t go in, so I knew I might have an off-night,” he said. “I decided I would get my teammates involved first and if my shot came by being wide open I was going to take it. But tonight it was just about getting my teammates more involved.”

With five minutes left in the game, McCamey’s assists started rolling from his hot hands and he helped teammates connect on the next four baskets. There was one to Brian Randle from three-fourths of the length of the court away, hitting the forward under the rim for an easy layup. Another came when he found Shaun Pruitt for a dunk with 3:22 left. And he found Randle again a minute later.

His team was up by only four points at the beginning of the run, but as his passes kept finding targets, Illinois opened up a 10 point lead and held on 54-50 to advance to the Tournament title game Sunday against Wisconsin.

“We’re going to go out tomorrow and play a dream game and give it our all,” McCamey said. “If my shots aren’t falling, I’ll have to be a passing point guard and take my shots, it all depends on how they going to play me.”

Trent Meacham didn’t deny that McCamey’s legs could have been affected by the scoring display he put on against Purdue and the strength needed to get that done, but added that if a new player can step up every game his team will find itself in a good position. McCamey finished with seven assists and eight points in 34 minutes.

“We’re used to practicing multiple days in a row and playing, but this is a different intensity level and a lot of guys are playing a lot of minutes,” Meacham said. “Hopefully we have some more guys step up tomorrow. That’s what it’s all about.

Chester Frazier said that McCamey was tired but still got things done.

“It wasn’t his night to score,” Frazier said. “He played a good floor game and made a few great passes down the stretch-found Brian and Shaun cutting down the lane. It was the key to the game when we started running on them more. That’s when I think we caught our second wind.”

“It’s going to be hard when your legs are gone, your jump shots aren’t falling, he just had to let our athletic forwards do the work,” Frazier added. “I don’t think the legs were there for him. The shots weren’t falling early so he found another way to play a role on the floor.”

What did McCamey have to say?

“They were a little (tired), but that doesn’t have anything to do with how I play tomorrow,” he said. “I got to get up for the Big Ten Championship. If you can’t get your legs ready for that, you might as well quit playing basketball.”

Bruce Weber sounded surprised afterwards when told Demetri didn’t have full strength in his legs.

“Did he say he doesn’t have them?” the coach asked. “I don’t know – everybody’s always tired. If they can’t get their legs back we’re probably not going to win (against Wisconsin). That’s mind over matter and I think they’ll be fine by tomorrow.”

Center Shaun Pruitt said he recognized early on, after he saw McCamey was looking pass-first, that he was going to have to be ready for basketballs zipping past his head.

“Man, he sees the court so well. He’s a great passer,” Pruitt said. “If I run the court he’s going to hit me. I was thinking to myself, ‘I need to run as fast as I can.”

“I don’t think it’s hard for him to change roles either. When I first saw him play in the summertime in the open gym he was great at passing. He’s one of those guys that can be a pass-first player. He’s not similar to Shaun Livingston, but they both can score when they want to.”

The shots that almost were

On an early possession, before McCamey missed his second three-point attempt, he sunk a long-range shot only for it to be waived off because of an offensive foul called on Randle. Had that shot counted, McCamey said, there would have been no telling how the rest of the game would have panned out.

“It went in, but it was too bad they called that foul,” he said. “I might have shot another one after that, and then another.”

Brian Randle said it all worked out in the end.

“He didn’t need the shots,” Randle said. “The assists count for the same thing.”

A near-fatal stretch

Illinois connected on only one field goal in the first 11 minutes of the second half – a three pointer by Meacham – but didn’t surrender its six-point halftime lead at any point during the stretch.

Players sitting in the Illinois locker room after the game said that two weeks ago that stretch could have been a fatal one.

“A couple weeks ago we probably would have lost,” Pruitt said. “Our team chemistry wouldn’t have been there and we wouldn’t have had the maturity to pull it out. That’s the biggest difference to why we’re here right now.”

Chester Frazier said that the team Illinois has become can find ways out of tough situations.

“That was tough, but luckily we had a good enough lead and got a few stops. We go through scoring droughts sometimes but we rely on our defense and our transition game to get us back into it.

“A few weeks ago, maybe it would have been a different outcome,” he added. “We might have folded up our tent and sent it packing, but everybody’s putting up a fight and nobody’s giving up on our season.”

Redemption

Having spent most of the season losing games, the Illini now sit at 16-18. When asked if winning games at this point in the season makes up for the previous disappointment, most players agreed that it did.

“We said when we came here this was an opportunity for a new start to the season,” Meacham said. “It’s a fresh start, things haven’t gone like we wanted them to, but we’re really starting to believe in each other. We’ve been working all year and we haven’t stopped working in practice. We’ve gone hard all year and it’s starting to pay off now.”

Shaun Pruitt echoed those sentiments.

“Tomorrow gives us a chance to redeem ourselves,” Pruitt said. “It’s going to be tough, but we definitely have a chance to do it. I think we can.

“It would be total redemption,” he added. “There were a lot of people that didn’t believe in us.”

Coach Weber said he didn’t want to think about what would happen after Sunday’s game if his team happened to lose against Wisconsin. He didn’t specify whether his team would make the NIT or would accept an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational.

“Let’s just win tomorrow and then we won’t have to worry about anything.”

“I would be interested,” he added, “but I have to see if my athletic director is and what the kids think.”

Randle said he’d be open to playing beyond Sunday no matter what happened.

“We need to keep this going as far as we can,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what it is, we can go to Slovenia if we need to. You can send me anywhere, I just want to keep this going.”