MINNEAPOLIS – Midway through the second half, Demetri McCamey shot through a passing lane and stole the ball.
Seconds later he was stopped. Not by a Minnesota defender, but by a leg cramp. He limped to the sideline and chugged a cup of water.
The senior returned 12 seconds later to put the finishing touches on what could prove to be one of the most important wins of the past four seasons.
"I just had to step up tonight and lead my team," McCamey said after Illinois scratched out a 71-62 win against Minnesota at Williams Arena.
"He played so hard he cramped," added Bruce Weber, whose team snapped a four-game losing streak on the road.
Leading into Thursday's game, the Illini had everything questioned – their effort, their talent, even their will to win. They weren't even safe during the game, as ESPN analyst Dan Dakich buried the Illini seniors with a scathing opinion at halftime.
"The national media, ESPN, is calling them out," Weber said. "The Big Ten Network is calling them out."
"That's just bulletin-board material," said senior Mike Davis.
Perhaps the ESPN criticism was in response to Weber's decision to bench the most experienced players on the roster. McCamey (106 career starts, 10th all time at Illinois) and Mike Tisdale (95 consecutive starts, the fourth-longest streak at Illinois) watched from the sideline in their warmup jackets as Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard replaced them at tipoff.
Well, they didn't exactly watch. McCamey rose to his feet to cheer a hustle play by D.J. Richardson. Tisdale threw his arm around rookie Leonard, his replacement, to offer veteran instruction. Weber had decided on the lineup change Wednesday but waited to inform the players of the shuffle until minutes before tipoff.
"I actually had no idea I was going to start," Leonard said. "I've been a little dehydrated, but I thought I had a pretty good week of practice."
"It doesn't matter," Tisdale said. "As long as we win, I can be on the bench or on the court. That's all that matters right now."
Weber said he was unsure if the starting lineup would change again when No. 14 Purdue visits the Assembly Hall on Sunday.
There was no one questioning the Illini after Thursday's game, just the Orange Krush serenading D.J. Richardson with, "Happy birthday to you!" as the players came back on the court to applaud their student support group.
The Krush had bussed to Minneapolis from C-U and sat down only at halftime from its seats in the upper balcony.
Illinois (16-8, 6-5 Big Ten) might be a team flirting with the bubble, but the effort on display showed it is hardly a team ready to mail it in.
"There are a couple games in the season that are a must-win, and this was a must-win," Davis, who had 17 points and nine rebounds. "We couldn't lose this game. We had to have this game."
Illinois earned its first road win of 2011 the hard way – before a near sellout against a desperate Minnesota (16-8, 5-7) team that has lost four straight for the first time under Tubby Smith.
Paul had 12 points, while Richardson had 11. McCamey had 17 points and added a season-high nine Matto points, the statistic that jumped out to his teammates. Illinois scored 40-plus Matto points after totaling no more than 27 in the previous seven games.
"I can't even explain how big this was. It's only one win, but it's so much more than that," said senior Bill Cole. "Just the way everyone played. No one pouted from the changes to the starting lineups."
Or maybe a better question: What didn't happen? Bruce Weber overhauled the lineup (benching Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale), assistant Jay Price was whistled for a bizarre technical foul while seated, and McCamey earned Weber's praise for diving to the floor. You know, the usual. Oh, and Illinois won a road game for the first time in 2011.
What it means
This season, if Minnesota and Illinois boast comparable postseason resumes, the Illini hold the head-to-head upper hand. Thank Mike Davis, for one. The senior has averaged 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds over the past six games. Illinois broke a four-game road skid and lifted its spirits for trips to Michigan State, No. 1 Ohio State and No. 14 Purdue.
What the Illini said
"We talked a lot about (how) we were in a foxhole. I had to explain what a foxhole was to the guys." -Coach Bruce Weber
What the Gophers said
"I guess we just hit the wall and didn't do the job." -Coach Tubby Smith
There are single tickets still available for Sunday's home game against No. 14 Purdue (Noon, CBS). The Boilers have lost four straight road games. The UI scouting report will highlight JaJuan Johnson, who has scored in double figures in 32 straight games, and E'Twaun Moore, who bounced from a slump with 25 against Indiana on Tuesday.