Coach: Secret to Illini’s road win was hard work

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CHAMPAIGN, ILL. (AP) - With his team leading by five points with just over a minute to go Thursday night, Illinois coach Bruce Weber knew he couldn’t relax just yet.

His inconsistent Illini have proven that they struggle to hold late leads, especially on the road.

Sure enough, Minnesota’s Rodney Williams banked in a desperate 3-pointer and the lead was down to two.

“And you’re thinking, ‘Oh, God,’” Weber said Friday.

But this game was different.

Weber’s Illini heeded his calls this week for tougher, more consistent play, responding at least in part to the benching of starters Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale and delivered a 71-62 win that keeps the Illini (16-8, 6-5 Big Ten) fourth in the conference.

Most important, they stay in the chase for an NCAA tournament berth.

It was McCamey, the team’s senior leader playing in a reserve role for the first time since early in his junior year, who stopped Minnesota late.

Hobbled by leg cramps, he wound up with the ball after Williams’ 3-pointer, drew a foul and hit a pair of free throws that clinched the win.

On a cold-shooting night _ Illinois hit 39 percent of its field goals and Minnesota 36 percent _ Weber said he was proud that his team found a way to win.

“We finally found a way to get an ugly win,” he said. “And to me it’s the prettiest of the year because we were able to adjust and learn how to fight and make plays when it counted.”

Illinois had lost five of seven coming into the game, including four on the road, and was staring at the possibility of missing the NCAAs for a second straight year. The losses included ugly performances at Penn State and Indiana.

What Weber won’t know until No. 14 Purdue comes to town Sunday is whether the change in his team’s temperament sticks.

The coach talked before the Minnesota game, as he has for the better part of two seasons, about his team’s lack of toughness and hard-edged leadership. That after a season when the Illini opened in the Top 25, beat North Carolina and Gonzaga and started 3-0 in the Big Ten.

“It’s just sad because at the beginning of the year I thought we were all over the place, we were aggressive,” Weber said. “We had an edge, and we lost the edge. Hopefully we can get it back.”

The problem now, he said on Friday, is that the schedule gets tough.

With seven games left, the Illini have two games against Purdue and one at No. 1 Ohio State around dates with Michigan State, Michigan, Iowa and then, the team that knocked them for one of their biggest loops this season, the Hoosiers.

“Minnesota was huge, (now) Purdue’s going to be huge,” Weber said. “If you find a way to win, then Michigan is going is very scrappy. You’ve got to play every game.”

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