Illini earn their stripes in rally

JOHN SUPINIE

The Illini grabbed a Tiger by the tail and got their hands back around the college basketball season.

Illinois completed the biggest rally in school history Wednesday to upset No. 18 Clemson 76-74 in an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game before 10,000 fans at cozy Littlejohn Coliseum.

Had the Illini slinked home with a 20-point loss, the season was “in the gutter,” said junior Mike Davis.

“It would have destroyed the team,” Illini senior Dominique Keller said. “Like coach (Bruce) Weber’s famous quote, ‘You’re all a bunch of sorry cats.’

“We were all embarrassed. We were down 20 on national TV. We know a lot of people jumped off the bandwagon once we dropped those two games to Utah and Bradley. I said before we stepped on the court that this is a makeup game.”

Evidently, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Illinois didn’t fold down the stretch like it did in upset defeats against Utah and Bradley in the Las Vegas Invitational.

Thanks to a 28-4 push early in the second half, and gutsy play down the stretch, the Illini not only saved the game but perhaps the season with their 23-point rally after halftime.

In the hills and hollows of Carolina, Illinois put itself back on the basketball map and made the season interesting again. A win over the team picked to finish third in the ACC gives the Illini a little respect, but the first-half deficit must have been the nightmare in coach Bruce Weber’s head.

“I’ll be honest,” Weber said. “I was scared. We’re still struggling. We’re still growing up. I didn’t think it would be that bad, but I thought it would be tough to be successful.”

Illinois improved to 5-2 overall. The Illini host Boise State at 6:30 p.m. Saturday (Big Ten Network).

Behind big games from Davis (22 points on 9-for-11 shooting and nine rebounds) and freshman Brandon Paul (20 points, 13 coming in the second half, plus five rebounds, three assists and three steals), the Illini overcame the foul trouble of guard Demetri McCamey. The guard played only four minutes in the first half, started the second half with three fouls and had his fourth with 13 minutes 49 seconds remaining.

McCamey scored only two points “but played the best game of his career,” Weber said, by dishing out seven assists, steadying the Illini against the press and being a leader.

Perhaps Illinois learned a lesson in Vegas. Illinois showed the leadership. Center Mike Tisdale and the other juniors pulled the team together. Fist-pumping and huddling up, the Illini had some fight behind the slender small-town product.

“Coach has been looking for leaders the whole season,” Tisdale said. “Last weekend, nobody stepped up and tried to help each other. Today, that’s all I focused on. At the beginning of the season, coach said if I don’t worry about myself and worry about everyone else, the game comes to me. If I worry about other people, it helps me out.”

Tisdale’s drive down the baseline for a short bank shot put the Illini ahead 75-74 with 41 seconds left. On Clemson’s ensuing possession, Tisdale blocked a shot in the lane. Paul’s free throw seconds later made it 76-74 before one last Clemson miss.

“On the block, he happened to shoot it at my hand,” Tisdale said. “I can’t really explain it. I don’t remember much.”

Tisdale had 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocked shots. Freshman guard D.J. Richardson had 14 points, three rebounds and two assists in 34 minutes. Trailing 47-27 at halftime, Weber didn’t pop a gasket in the locker room.

“We were as down as we could be at halftime,” Weber said. “I sat down with them and basically had a chat. I told them that we embarrassed ourselves, and ‘Now we have to learn how to play, how to compete. One thing you might want to do is pass, cut and move the ball.’

“(Clemson) got up by 23. They shut it down a little bit. We did it last week to Utah. The amazing thing is how fast we caught up.”

Illinois took a 63-61 lead on a steal and fast-break basket by Paul with 8:47 left. While the Illini were celebrating afterward, Clemson (6-2) was dazed.

“I think we relaxed and let a good team with capable players get going,” Clemson coach Oliver Purnell said. “Give them credit. They hung in there and kept going.”

Guard Demontez Stitt scored 15 to lead Clemson. Tigers big man Trevor Booker had 12 points and 10 rebounds but took only one shot in the second half.

NOTES: The rally topped Illinois’ comeback from 21 down against Seton Hall in an 87-79 victory in Assembly Hall in Dec. 9, 2000. ... Mike Davis’ parents made the nine-hour drive from Alexandria, Va. ... Illinois golf coach Mike Small was part of the small Illini contingent behind the bench.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.