Weber’s halftime words spark Illini comeback


Illinois forward Mike Davis, back, the leading scorer, is congratulated by teammates Dominique Keller, left and Bill Cole, right, after Illinois’ 76-74 victory over Clemson in an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009, at Littlejohn Colliseum, in Clemson, S.C.

By Stuart Lieberman

Head coach Bruce Weber’s advice to his players in the locker room at halftime Wednesday night must have aligned somewhat with Herb Brooks’ influential speech to the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

Because whatever he said worked.

Down by 20 points at the half, Weber remained cool and collected with his players, despite having already been called for a technical foul himself for throwing his clipboard at the floor.

After the Illini saw their coach compose himself, they followed suit. Illinois went on to put up 49 points in the second half to defeat No. 18 Clemson, 76-74, in the final seconds of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game, completing the largest comeback in program history.

Soft-spoken center Mike Tisdale said he wasn’t surprised by Weber’s calm approach at the break.

“He kind of explained that we’re embarrassing ourselves and that we need to do something about it,” he said.

But junior forward Mike Davis, who led Illinois with 22 points and nine rebounds, was a little shocked.

“At halftime, I thought coach would come in there and yell at us and scream at us,” Davis said. “He sat down with us, sat in a chair and talked to us like men. And we came out in the second half and kept our heads up and fought hard and won.”

Davis said he thought Weber would tell him to be tougher on the boards and call out some of the players, but instead he simply told them all to “be resilient.”

The big man stressed that he, Tisdale and Demetri McCamey had to work together after the break if the Illini were to salvage anything.

“They definitely stepped up,” freshman Brandon Paul said of the three junior starters. “They told us to keep our heads up.”

The trio knew it would take effort by all three of them to right the ship.

“We couldn’t hit a home run,” Davis said. “That’s what we kept saying, ‘Don’t hit a home run. Just chip at it, chip at it, chip at it. And we did.”

All it took was an anchor.

“One thing we were missing out in (Las Vegas) was a vocal leader, and so I decided to come to Clemson to be that with that mentality,” McCamey said.

Despite getting into foul trouble early and only finishing with two points, McCamey’s seven assists and verbose personality on the bench was enough to get the Illini over the hump.

Paul looked like a leader himself by the end of the contest, and he returned to the locker room to find his phone flooded with unread texts. He finished with 20 points, bumping his season average up to 12.6 points per game.

“That’s the most fun I’ve had since my last high school game,” Paul said.

Following the win, all five Illini starters are now averaging double figures in points, and Davis said the team thinks it can defeat the rest of its nonconference opponents.

“I think it shifted our season back up,” Davis said.