LAS VEGAS – A Braggin'' Rights win brought a tepid celebration. A 100-point night against Longwood was accompanied by long faces.
So why was Illinois'' basketball team all smiles Thursday night?
Why were the Illini so happy with an ugly 69-51 win against Northwestern State in the Las Vegas Holiday Classic?
"Because they battled," Illini coach Bruce Weber said.
They had to. Northwestern State, scrappy to the end, gave Cincinnati a fight and hung close with LSU. The Demons aren''t the most talented bunch, but they''re big, they''re tough and they don''t give any quarter.
Which is why the Illini could smile after blocking seven shots, coming up with nine steals and holding the Demons to 35.8 percent shooting and 51 points, the fewest Illinois has surrendered this season.
"We just had a lot more energy, a lot more intensity," Illinois guard Deron Williams said. "That''s what we set out to do."
That energy and intensity was lacking in the second half of Illinois'' win against Missouri, a 20-minute stretch in which the struggling Tigers scored 41 points.
Illinois'' defense was even worse against Longwood, a first-year Division I program that shot 53.3 percent in a 105-79 loss.
The Illini tempered their standard post-Mizzou celebration and were downright crabby after the Longwood game.
But there were smiles and laughs to go around in the postgame scene Thursday night, the Illini practically beaming about a defensive performance that held Northwestern State to three points during one second-half stretch of almost seven minutes.
"I don''t care about offense," guard Dee Brown said. "I just care about defense. If we play good defensively, I''m happy. Defensively, teams had been scoring easily. Long as I''ve been here, we never let teams score that easy, so now we''re getting back to that."
Weber was pleased with his team''s defensive performance. But not surprised.
After he showed them some film of their defensive shortcomings against Longwood, Weber saw a fire in his players. The Illini locked up defensively during practices Tuesday and Wednesday in Las Vegas.
"They were a little embarrassed (by) the Longwood game," Weber said. "It''s a mental state, defense. It''s pride, it''s desire and being on your toes."
Weber would have liked to have rested his starters against Northwestern State, but the game didn''t get completely out of hand until late in the second half, and a string of nagging ailments kept the Illini from employing a full bench.
Forward Jack Ingram is fighting illness, and Rich McBride, struggling with a bone bruise in his right foot, was stepped on or kicked at one point and didn''t return to the game.
Brown also left the game early with some tightness in his legs. Strength coach Jimmy Price helped Brown stretch on the sideline, and he''s expected to be at full speed for today''s game against Cincinnati.
If Illinois wanted a test to warm up for Cincinnati big men Jason Maxiell and Eric Hicks, they couldn''t have hoped for much better than Northwestern State''s Byron Allen.
The Demons'' 6-foot-7, 255-pound forward had six points, but he pounded Illinois in the paint on the defensive end. On offense, he took up space.
Most of it in the painted area.
For long periods of time.
"Jiminy Christmas," Weber said. "It was 20 seconds on one possession."
Allen never was called for a three-second violation, even in a game played with the experimental wider lane employed in international basketball.
"When he scores that much, you can''t take him out of his area," Illinois forward James Augustine said. "Shaq stays in the lane, too. If you can''t move him, if he gets away with it, it stinks for us, but they''ll take it."
Williams had three turnovers against Northwestern State. He thought he deserved two.
Williams'' last turnover came late in the game, when he was stripped of the ball by a Demons defender. The problem? An official blew his whistle, leaving Williams to believe the play was dead.
The official gave Illinois forward Shaun Pruitt the ball to inbound on the sideline and blew his whistle to put the ball in play. Pruitt passed in to Williams, who streaked downcourt.
The official blew his whistle again a second later, and Williams turned to see the call, giving up the ball in the process.
"As soon as he blew it and gave it to Shaun and I caught it, he blew it again," Williams said. "And I just kind of stopped and sort of put the ball down, and it was a turnover. He knew he did it, too, that''s what''s crazy. Can''t you take it back? It''s an inadvertent whistle."
The gym at Valley High, which is hosting the tournament, has been the topic of much discussion here – and elsewhere.
ESPN''s "Cold Pizza" called tournament organizer Chris Spencer on Wednesday, hoping to do a feature on why Illinois and Cincinnati – two of the nation''s last nine unbeaten teams – will play in a high school gym.
But Valley High, which is hosting the tournament because UNLV has refused to allow its Thomas & Mack Center to be used and because the NCAA won''t allow games to be played in casino ballrooms, is fine with the participants.
"I love playing in high school gyms," Williams said.
And Augustine, who had 12 points and 10 rebounds, didn''t seem to mind playing in a gym that he said was smaller than the one at Lincoln-Way Central, where he played his high school hoops.
"It''s great playing here," Augustine said. "I kept having flashbacks."
Scout it out
Not many fans are getting to see the Las Vegas Holiday Classic, but the players will have ample opportunity to showcase their skills for even more important eyes.
Nine NBA teams – the Cavaliers, 76ers, Raptors, Pacers, Knicks, Hawks, Grizzlies, Nets and Heat – had seats on press row, and an overflow seating area was set up for additional scouts.
You can reach Brett Dawson at (217) 373-7422 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.