Postseason run halts in Big Ten Tourney Final

Illinois watches its 2008 season come to an end during the Big Ten Tournament final against Wisconsin at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on March 16. The Badgers won the game 61-48. Erica Magda

Illinois watches its 2008 season come to an end during the Big Ten Tournament final against Wisconsin at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis on March 16. The Badgers won the game 61-48. Erica Magda

By Jason Grodsky

Illinois’ shot at a ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid fell just short after a valiant run in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.

Needing to win the Big Ten Tournament to receive the conference’s automatic bid to the Big Dance, the 10th-seeded Illini upset No. 7 Penn State, 64-63, No. 2 Purdue, 74-67 in overtime, and No. 6 Minnesota, 54-50, to reach the tournament final.

With weary legs, the Illini’s improbable run ended in the title game when top-seeded Wisconsin prevailed 61-48 and claimed the tournament championship.


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“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.”

Despite being handed their 19th loss of the season, the most in program history, the Illini’s late season run provided a handful of exhilarating highlights and a sense of optimism for the future.

The Illini were a mere 3.8 seconds away from elimination in the first round of the tournament, but a Chester Frazier layup and a defensive stop in the waning moments against Penn State allowed them to survive another day.

In round two, freshman guard Demetri McCamey scored a game-high 26 points and drained a long three-pointer from the top of the key with 18 seconds remaining in regulation. The Illini overcame a five-point deficit in the final minute to force overtime and beat Purdue.

“We had a game plan coming in (against Purdue), and we just came out with high intensity and made big plays,” McCamey said. “Coach (Weber) told us that someone needed to step up, and fortunately I was that player.”

McCamey earned a spot on the All-Tournament Team, averaging 10 points per game in his first conference tournament.

Senior center Shaun Pruitt joined McCamey as the other Illini on the All-Tournament Team after scoring a game-high 13 points and grabbing eight rebounds in the championship game against Wisconsin. Pruitt said more than just his individual effort paid off in the tournament. The team’s overall effort was outstanding, but the Illini ultimately could not 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.”

Randle offered a similar analysis of the tournament’s victors.

“(Wisconsin) plays solid and methodical,” the fellow senior added. “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 four days, the players’ fatigue greatly affected the Illini’s outside shooting. This left most of their perimeter shots short, as they finished just 3-of-13 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. The Illini made the championship game as the 11th seed before losing to top-seed Michigan State 67-50 in the championship game.

“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 into the system. We should have been sitting there waiting to see where we’re going (in the NCAA Tournament) because our team was capable of that. Hopefully, we can take this momentum into next season to have a successful year.”