Illinois' magnificent trio shows off versatility

Luther Head (Badger Nation file photo)

Whether spotting up for jumpers or driving to the lane, Illini guards too much for Wisconsin

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Luther Head scored a game-high 26 points here Saturday in Illinois' 70-59 win over Wisconsin. But it was a pass he made early in the second half that pleased Illini coach Bruce Weber.

"I think the first play of the second half when we had possession, Luther got it, jump stopped, hit Deron [Williams] for a 3," Weber said. "I think that was kind of a thing that got us going and we realized how we should play the remainder of the game."

Not that the Illini had been playing poorly, but Weber felt his top-ranked Illinois squad, which improved to a perfect 25-0 Saturday (11-0 in the Big Ten) with a 70-59 win over No. 20 Wisconsin, rushed its game in the first half against a feisty Badger defense, as exhibited by Illinois' mere four assists.

"This game is a game of discipline against them," Weber said. "You have to have discipline on defense and then you have to have discipline on offense. I thought in the first half we lost our poise on offense. We were fine defensively, we just rushed [offensively]."

Illinois played an impeccable half-court game in the second half Saturday, shooting 58 percent (11 of 19), a necessity when visiting Wisconsin aided its upset bid with 50 percent second-half shooting (12 of 24).

Head and his backcourt teammates, Dee Brown and Deron Williams, took turns gashing the Badgers. They made all of Illinois' second-half field goals, converting 11 of 17 attempts, and scored 39 of 43 Illini points after halftime. All told Head (26), Brown (16) and Williams (15) combined for 57 points on 18 of 37 shooting.

Whether the backcourt trio was pulling up for a mid-range jumper, firing away from beyond the 3-point arc, or cutting to the rim, Wisconsin did not have an answer.

"You have three guys that can catch and shoot, dribble penetrate to the rim and pull up. That's guys developing their game," Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "They've got it going right now and they've played together so they know where the open guy is and they know how to beat the help."

Head crushed the Badgers' defense with dribble penetration, using ball screens and curls to the lane to knock down 7 of 14 shots, relying on mid-range pull-up jumpers and a 12 of 13 performance from the free-throw line to accumulate his game-high 26 points.

"They are not very good at containing the dribble and I think we exposed that, getting to the lane," Williams said.

Head scored his 26 points despite going 0 of 3 from 3-point range and not attempting a triple after halftime.

"It shows how he's advanced his game," Weber said.

Head gave Illinois an early 11-8 lead after curling to the lane for one of his mid-range jumpers. After Wisconsin closed to within 14-13, Head scored Illinois' next six points to help build a 20-16 edge. He made a pair of free throws, then used a ball screen to get free and knock down a jumper, before finishing the spurt with another mid-range jumper.

"I thought he did a really good job with his hesitation dribble," Ryan said. "He really got it up, made it look like he was going to stop. But we've got that on tape and we've said you can't go to sleep when he does that.

"We missed some assignments. There was some things that we were trying to get across that we need to do a better job of. We've seen people with that type of dribble before and that kind of penetration. We just didn't recognize it."

Head scored 16 points in the second half, consistently working his way to spots on the floor where he could be productive. After Wisconsin rallied within 52-46 with less than seven minutes left in the game, Head drove to the lane, pulled up, double clutched and sank a short jumper over Alando Tucker with two seconds left on the shot clock.

Before making 6 of 6 free throws down the stretch, Head made a big play defensively, stepping in front of a Kammron Taylor pass intended for Mike Wilkinson. The steal led to Brown's third 3-pointer in a 7-minute span, giving Illinois a commanding 62-51 lead with 1:45 left.

While Head methodically punished the Badgers, Brown blitzed them with his NBA-range 3-pointers, thwarting any inkling Wisconsin had of a comeback.

"We got them to slow down and run the shot clock down, but when a guy hits a 3 from that range, you don't have an answer for that," Ryan said. "And even if you do you are not going to get a four-point play, so you are not going to gain ground."

Brown scored all 13 of his second-half points in the final 9:39 of the game, beginning with a layup off a backdoor cut and finishing with a pair of free throws.

"Dee took over there at the end," Head said.

Williams, who has struggled with his shot this season, was anything but bashful Saturday, hoisting 15 attempts into the air. He made 2 of 8 before halftime but was 4 of 7 in the second half. His back-to-back 3-pointers early in the second half kicked off a 10-0 run that gave the Illini 37-28 edge.

Illinois' floor leader, Williams was also productive off the dribble, including a strong move past Sharif Chambliss for a pull-up jumper that made it 49-40 with 8:56 to play.

"We are just so lucky they all compliment each other," Weber said. "You've got Dee doing the quick, explosive, the energy, the excitement. You've got Luther just runs and jumps and explosion and then Deron is just our solid rock."

The trio was also strong defensively, helping limit UW starting guards Taylor, Chambliss and Clayton Hanson to 13 points on 4 of 15 from the field. Hanson, who was 0 of 1, was held scoreless for the second consecutive game.

More importantly, Illinois' ball pressure helped keep the Badgers from getting the ball to Wilkinson, who scored just eight points on four shots.

"We know they are going to Tucker, they are going to Wilkinson down the stretch. What plays are they going to run?," Weber asked rhetorically. "People can't say that about us. Sometimes we do it out of motion, sometimes we do it on a quick hitter, Every time it's a little different."

No matter what Illinois' guards chose to do Saturday, the Badgers could not stop it.

Illini subdue their excitement

After the Illini snapped Wisconsin's 38-game home winning streak at the Kohl Center in Madison Jan. 25, they were visibly jubilant, perhaps the most excited they have been after any of their 25 wins this season.

After topping the Badgers Saturday, Illinois was rather placid by comparison. That outward demeanor did not tell the story.

"We expect to win at home because you've got to protect your home court," Brown explained. "We are excited deep down that we beat them. No other team has beat Bo Ryan twice since he's been there… Honestly, out of all the schools, Wisconsin is not my favorite, so it feels great just to beat these guys."

Brown chose not to explain his animosity towards Wisconsin.

"It is just not my favorite," he said. "Don't even want to talk about it."

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