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Illinois finally lives up to preseason billing in feel-good win over UNLV

TULSA, Okla. -- With just over two minutes left Friday, Bruce Weber pulled Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale to the bench. Fans cheered as the Illinois seniors shared hugs, high fives and smiles for a blowout win.

They were both back in the game 14 seconds later, after UNLV sliced into the lead.

"They went on a little run, and we were maybe a little nervous," Tisdale said. "Now, it's funny. At the time it wasn't."

It's been that kind of season for Illinois, and especially for the seniors. Ninth-seeded Illinois dropped No. 8 UNLV 73-62 to advance to a Sunday date with top seed Kansas. Despite that late surge by the Rebels, the game wasn't nearly that close. And afterward, all four Illini seniors shared a postgame TV interview and reveled in the moment.

"We showed tonight we can play," Tisdale said. "We're a good team, we've just got to play like it."

That's what was expected when the season started, back when Illinois fancied itself a Big Ten contender. But after starting 13-3, the Illini lost 10 of their next 16, kept finding ways to cough up leads, and the only thing consistent about them was their inconsistency.

During that hot start, they'd beaten North Carolina, and lost to Texas in overtime, and the biggest concern might have been how in the world they used a women's basketball -- yes, that's correct -- for the first seven minutes, 22 seconds of a win over Oakland. A few weeks later, though, Weber was pulling out motivational gimmicks, traditional and not so much. He benched McCamey and Tisdale. He put the players' names back on their jerseys. One evening, they all played Wiffle ball. What they didn't do for any length of time was play good basketball.

"It's been up and down, win a game, lose a game," Tisdale said.

It's been 2 ½ months of wobbling. After a disastrous come-from-ahead loss to Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament -- the Illini were up 12 with 8:38 left -- they waited anxiously on Selection Sunday, uncertain if they would make it into the field. No one knew what to expect once they did.

Certainly not this.

"Tonight we were consistent," Weber said. "We played at a high level."

The maligned group of seniors led the way. Mike Davis scored 22. McCamey added 17. Tisdale and Bill Cole supplied emotional energy. And Illinois won its first NCAA tournament game in four years.

"It was big for all of us," Tisdale said.

Surprising for all of them, too, was the method. In a reversal of pregame expectations -- UNLV was supposed to cause all sorts of trouble with its fast pace -- the Illini ran their former coach's team out of the arena. In the first half, when it mattered, here was how it went: UNLV clanged a 3-pointer. Illinois raced downcourt. Layup. Repeat.

"The Illini were the much better team," UNLV coach Lon Kruger said.

The lead was 22 by halftime. And in huddles during timeouts, Tisdale kept telling his teammates: "Keep your foot on the pedal." By the second half, UNLV was so discombobulated that at one point, the Rebels started play after a timeout with only four players.

Speaking of missing players, Illinois freshman Jereme Richmond didn't play; the key reserve was suspended for violating team rules. Weber wouldn't say whether Richmond would be reinstated for Sunday's game against Kansas.

Now the Illini are on to face another former coach, Bill Self. That's a difficult proposition even without the history. In 2003-04, his first season after replacing Self at Illinois, Weber got tired of the constant comparisons and said:

"I'm going to throw a funeral. It's the end of Bill Self. It's over. There's no more comparing. He's gone. No more talking about it. I'll be honest, I'm fed up with it."

Seven-plus years later, he didn't bite.

"I'm just worried about Kansas," he said. "That's what I'm really worried about, their players, seeing if we can match up with them."

If this team shows up, who knows?

"Everybody will forget about what you do at the beginning of the season or the Big Ten season," McCamey said, "if you go out and win in March."

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