Illini to challenge Dayton for trip to Madison Square Garden

It appeared the Illini put their NCAA Tournament sorrows behind them in their victory against Kent State on Monday in the second round of the NIT, and now Bruce Weber’s squad is just one game away from playing at Madison Square Garden.

The Illini will challenge Dayton at the Assembly Hall in tonight’s NIT quarterfinal matchup, and the winner will move on to face Mississippi in the semifinals next week in New York City.

Weber said his players finally woke up during the second half of the 75-58 win against the Golden Flashes, and that he’s been waiting for them to do so since a somber Selection Sunday.

Although the contest was tied at the break, Illinois opened the second half with an 8-0 run and outscored Kent State 44-27 in the half to cruise to a victory.

“We’re going to have them playing like that the whole 40 minutes (Wednesday),” Weber said of his players.

“Kent State is good. (Dayton) is a whole other step,” he added.

At 8 p.m., the Illini will meet the Flyers — who are appearing in the NIT for the 22nd time — for the first time in 18 years. Dayton is led by First Team All-Atlantic 10 selection Chris Wright, who is averaging 13.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game this season.

Meanwhile, Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis are both averaging double-doubles for Illinois in the NIT, and the squad is averaging 75.5 points over its last two games.

“We have the potential to be very good,” Weber said. “I think we’re still at least one of the top 50 teams in the country, maybe even one of the top 40, and at times one of the top 25 teams in the country. But on the other hand, we can also be a team that’s 75 to 100.”

After a long up-and-down regular season, Weber hopes his players remain alert for the end.

“When you get to the end, you’re tired,” Weber said of the college basketball season. “You’re just trying to keep your eyes open.”