CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Before a record crowd at Assembly Hall here Saturday, The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team became the latest team to challenge top-ranked Illinois. Every time the Badgers truly threatened, however, the Illini’s backcourt trio took over.
The combination of Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams combined for 57 points, including 39 of Illinois’ 43 second-half points, as the Illini improved to a sparkling 25-0 overall and 11-0 in the Big Ten with a 70-59 win over Wisconsin.
“We just find the open man and whoever had it took it,” Head said. “Whoever was open took the shot.”
Each of the three guards had his time to shine. Head led the way with 26 points, his dribble penetration befuddling the Badgers from start to finish.
Williams scored 8 of his 15 points in a 10-0 Illini run that quickly turned a 1-point UW edge into a 9-point deficit early in the second half.
Brown, who played just 26 minutes due to foul trouble, scored 11 of his 16 points in a seven-minute span late in the game, including three jarring 3-pointers, each coming as UW was feeling a glimmer of hope. His triple with 3:09 left to play turned a precarious 5-point edge into a 57-49 Illinois lead. Two Illini possessions later he put the game away with a bomb that made it 62-51 with just 1:45 remaining.
“We had some answers and then they came down and had an answer-and-a-half,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said.
Alando Tucker, Wisconsin’s only player in double figures, scored 24 points.
The game was closer than the final score indicated but that it is little solace to the Badgers. The Illini all but mathematically eliminated Wisconsin (16-6, 7-4) from the Big Ten championship race, dispatching the last ranked opponent on their regular season schedule.
“Everyone in the country is waiting for Illinois to lose and think we are not the best team in the country,” Brown said. “We just continue to play and hopefully continue to win.”
Illinois has continued to win all season long and in a variety of fashions. Saturday’s contest was a low-possession, physical slugfest in which Illinois was quicker than UW defensively and stronger with the ball offensively.
The Illini forced 14 UW turnovers, compared to 11 from Illinois. They pestered the Badgers defensively, particularly forward Mike Wilkinson, the Badgers’ second-leading scorer, who was 4 of 4 for eight points, but was held to uncharacteristically few opportunities.
“We just tried to force him out off the block a little bit and then when he tried to make his moves, we tried to come and double,” Williams said.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, could not slow down Illinois’ top trio, particularly at critical junctures.
“It was kind of different guys at different times,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “Luther saved us in the first half. Deron comes out there and gets going early in the second half, Luther comes back and then Dee finishes it.
“Whoever is moving, cutting, we find the open guy, we get it to him. I thought we did a very good job in the second half of getting in the lane, using our dribble to get into the lane… It was pretty effective.”
For the second time in two-and-a-half weeks, Wisconsin led Illinois in the second half, only to see the Illini take command with an impressive run.
Saturday, Tucker made a pair of free throws 16 seconds into the second half to give UW a 28-27 lead, but the Illini rattled off a 10-0 run over the next 4:46 to take a 37-28 lead.
Wisconsin, which converted just one field goal in the last 4:26 of the first half, scored its first bucket after halftime when Tucker made a layup on an alley-oop pass from sophomore guard Kammron Taylor 5:14 into the second half.
After Head hit 2 of 3 free throws for Illinois, UW senior guard Sharif Chambliss nailed a triple and Tucker hit 1 of 2 from the line, bringing UW within 39-34 with 13:04 left to play. Wisconsin drew within five twice more, but could get no closer.
Tucker’s triple with 8:40 left to play brought UW within 49-43, but Brown answered with an NBA-range 3 to make it 52-43 at 8:30. UW junior forward Ray Nixon’s 3 made it 54-49 with 4:33 remaining but Brown answered with his second deep triple with 3:09 left on the game clock and just three seconds on the shot clock.
“Dee Brown comes in and hits two big threes,” Tucker said. “That’s very tough. You look at it like, ‘man, this is a dagger’ because we were working so hard. We were playing good ‘d’ for 30 seconds and then in the last five seconds, he puts up a shot and it goes in.”
Illini senior forward Roger Powell, who played just 18 minutes due to foul trouble, made a pair of free throws to give Illinois a 59-51 edge. Brown followed with his third deep 3, effectively putting the game away with 1:45 left.
“All those shots, they were deep but he was straight on, he’s squared up,” Weber said. “He’s worked on it, he plays with a lot of confidence. He loves big shots, big games.”
Illinois made 8 of 8 free throws to close out the game and finished 18 of 19 from the line. Wisconsin, meanwhile, was 7 of 16 from the charity stripe.
“I know what [the Illini] did,” Ryan said. “They hit shots when they really needed them and they took care of the free throw line.”
Wisconsin took an 8-4 lead early in the game on successive 3-pointers from Taylor and Chambliss.
Williams, though, answered just seconds later, his 3 from the left wing drawing the Illini within 8-7 and kicking off a 10-0 Illinois run, during which the Badgers went scoreless over 6:25.
Wisconsin also suffered through a four-minute, 25-second scoreless streak late in the first half. Tucker snapped that drought with a fastbreak dunk just two seconds before halftime that made it 27-26 Illinois.
Notable: Illinois’ 25-game winning streak is tied for the longest in school history…. On Jan. 25, Illinois became the first Big Ten team to beat the Badgers at the Kohl Center in Bo Ryan’s four years as head coach. Saturday, the Illini became the first conference team to sweep a season series from the Ryan-led Badgers… Saturday’s announced crowd of 16,865 was an Assembly Hall record… Wisconsin held Illinois to a season-low 11 assists, but had just 10 itself.