Men’s basketball finds its groove with win against Commodores

The Illini definitely had their swag on when they took the court at the Assembly Hall against Vanderbilt on Tuesday night. The team danced to F.L.Y.’s “Swag Surfin’” on a boom box in the locker room before tip-off to pump up.

The first 40 seconds summed up exactly what the team had in mind and provoked head coach Bruce Weber to applaud his team on the sidelines immediately. Freshman Brandon Paul made his first shot, junior Mike Tisdale stole the ball on the opposite end and then Demetri McCamey sank a 3-pointer to quickly put Illinois ahead 5-0.

The Illini built on their lead throughout the rest of the night to cruise to a 79-68 victory against the Commodores, their toughest opponent at home so far this season.

“We got it rockin’ a little bit,” Weber said. “It’s hard to describe it, but when you make those jumpers and you’re feeling it, you make another jumper and you get that groove going … I thought we played at a high level right out of the gate.”

McCamey spearheaded the Illini win, scoring 23 points and dishing out five assists. Tisdale sparked the team early, going 6-for-7 in the first half, while freshman guard D.J. Richardson got hot late into the game to finish with 16 points.

“It was just a confidence shot,” Richardson said of one of his second-half baskets.

Illinois prompted a fast-paced opening half, something it didn’t do against Boise State on Saturday. The team shot out of the gates to take a 9-0 lead, and it never looked back. Rather than looking lost while passing the ball around the perimeter as at times in the past few games, the Illini forced the ball into the lane.

McCamey was 5-for-7 in the first half, and Jeff Jordan got in on the early action as well, sinking a shot shortly after checking into the game, while Dominique Keller made two 3-pointers.

More importantly for Weber, though, his team showed more aggressiveness on the defensive end than it has the past few weeks. The closest Vanderbilt ever got was when it trailed 18-13 at the 13-minute mark of the first half, and Illinois didn’t allow big man A.J. Ogilvy a basket until fewer than five minutes remained in the opening half. The Illini also held the Commodores’ leading scorer, sophomore guard Jeffery Taylor to just two points in the first 20 minutes.

“I just feel more comfortable playing against guys my size,” Tisdale said of his matchup against the 6-foot-11 Ogilvy. “It allows me to do some things I couldn’t do against a smaller, faster guy.”

Illinois held a 46-36 lead at the break, and its bench players helped maintain that lead during the second half. Jordan contributed a total of seven points and grabbed four rebounds, while Keller added six points and four rebounds.

McCamey said Jordan must have worked on the shot with his father, the great Michael Jordan, to help the Illini defeat the Commodores.

“He’s been a low-key leader, and he’s ready,” McCamey said. “It was his time to shine.”