CHAMPAIGN — An athletic and aggressive Dayton team jumped early on Illinois, who were slow out of the gate. The Fighting Illini never recovered and were eliminated from the NIT Wednesday with a 77-71 loss.
CHAMPAIGN — Where have you seen this before?
Illinois’ 77-71 loss to Dayton in the NIT quarterfinals on Wednesday night at Assembly Hall looked just like the opening-round loss to Western Kentucky in the NCAA tournament a year ago. An athletic, hungry and aggressive team jumped on the Illini, who were slow out of the gate and failed to recover until it was too late in a game that meant so much.
Illinois hit the game’s first basket, but the Flyers soared to a 9-3 lead and were in control until a late Illini rally.
“They kicked us in the face from the start,’’ Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “It was history, a mirror of what happened all year. Not always ready. Not dealing with physical play and then trying to make a frantic comeback a little bit too late.’’
With a trip to Madison Square Garden on the line, Illinois had one last maddening performance in a season that tantalized but eventually teased.
Let’s not be confused. This wasn’t about Illinois not being mentally ready. Dayton had more hard-nosed athletes — and was that much more motivated — in a game that became as physical as any in the Big Ten Conference.
A berth in the NIT semifinals would have covered up some of Illinois’ sins. Instead, the Illini lost at the Hall for the fourth time in the last five games, and there’s not a good feeling as Illinois heads into the offseason. A loss like Wednesday’s showed there’s still a long way to go.
The Illini trailed by 17 in the first half, then staged a rally to get within 75-71 with 19.5 seconds left.
Illinois finished the season with a 21-15 record, but a thorough loss is motivation for the Illini.
“It should help everybody be more hungry and have that feeling to get better so we don’t have to be in the NIT next year and we can be in the NCAA tournament,’’ Illini guard Demetri McCamey said. “It makes you want to work harder and work on your game.
“If we want to be a team and be successful, we have to work on offense and moving without the ball and especially on defense. Getting stops in key points of the game. Starting off and finishing games, playing the whole 40 minutes instead of 20 minutes in the second half. We have to work on everything and be better players. We have to work hard this summer and be a unit, instead of just being a team when times are good.’’
McCamey led the Illini with 13 points and 10 assists. He broke the school’s single-season assist record by averaging 7.1 per game, but he was 6 for 19 from the field. Reserve forward Tyler Griffey (11), guard D.J. Richardson (10) and forward Mike Davis (10) also scored in double figures,
Dayton raced to leads of 17-6 and 38-21 in the first half. Meanwhile, the Illini couldn’t find the bottom of the net. Illinois shot 30 percent in the first half. Even the Dayton pep band was aggressive, cutting off the Illini’s traditional halftime routine of songs to draw the disapproval from the home crowd.
The Illini were 10 for 33 from the field in the first half, including a 3-for-13 effort from the 3-point line. Illinois finished by shooting 37.7 percent, but only 23.1 percent from the 3-point line.
“I thought our speed and athletic ability might be effective,’’ Dayton coach Brian Gregory said. “I thought if we got them moving, our athletic ability would be highlighted.’’
Dayton (23-12) advanced to meet Mississippi in a semifinal Tuesday. Defending national champ North Carolina and Rhode Island meet in the other semifinal. The NIT championship is two days later.
“We started the game by being aggressive and playing our style,’’ said Dayton guard Chris Johnson, who scored 18 points. “We felt if we did that, we’d have an opportunity to win.”
Dayton finished seventh in the Atlantic-10 Conference, a league that placed Xavier in the Sweet 16 and Rhode Island in the NIT semifinals. Dayton didn’t have much trouble in its first two NIT games, rolling past Illinois State 63-42 and Cincinnati 81-66.
Perhaps the Flyers were just as frustrating to Dayton fans during the season as Illinois was to its fans. Dayton beat Xavier by 25 points and NCAA qualifier Georgia Tech but also lost a string of close games.
This isn’t the real March Madness, but the game had the feel of a special event. Diehard Illinois fans began streaming into the Hall two hours before the game, when doors opened to allow ticket holders to fill general admission seats.
There was a battle of the bands — Dayton brought its cheerleaders and pep band — that added to the postseason atmosphere. But the Dayton band had the floor at the night’s end.
NOTE: McCamey broke the assist record of 6.77 held by Deron Williams. . . Richardson started 35 games, the most by an Illini freshman. . . The Illini fell to Dayton for the third time in postseason, including two NIT losses here. The Flyers also knocked off Illinois in the NCAA first round in 1990.