Struggling Illini fall to No. 14 Wisconsin 70-56
MADISON, Wis. (AP)
Asked how difficult things have been for everyone who has ties to his struggling Illinois team, Bruce Weber's trademark raspy voice softened to a whisper.
''Oh, it's hard,'' Weber said. ''It's very hard. It's a difficult stretch. All you can do is help your kids, your players, the staff and our families. You just have to keep battling and doing it right, and good things will happen sometime.''
No. 14 Wisconsin didn't make things any easier for Weber on Sunday. The Badgers smothered the Illini with defense in the first half, then cruised to a 70-56 victory.
The loss continued what has been a miserable collapse in the second half of the Big Ten season for the Illini, and Weber's future at the school remains in doubt.
With the Big Ten tournament coming up, Weber sidestepped speculation over his job.
''I've coached for my job all year, so it's no different,'' Weber said.
Illinois has lost its last seven road games. Overall, the Illini have lost 11 of their last 13 since beating Ohio State on Jan. 10.
''It slowly but surely took the spirit of our kids, to be honest,'' Weber said.
Fans in Wisconsin's student section chanted ''NIT! NIT! NIT!'' in the closing minutes of the game.
Winning the conference tournament is now the only path for the Illini to make the NCAAs.
''I wish I had all the answers,'' Weber said. ''But right now, all we can worry about is the Big Ten tournament. Coming and playing, just playing your butts off. We can be a good team, but you've got to play. You've got to play with energy.''
Brandon Paul had 22 points for Illinois (17-14, 6-12), which had only three assists, a season-low.
Paul insisted Illinois players haven't given up on their coach.
''We talked about how we've got to motivate ourselves,'' Paul said. ''He hasn't stopped coaching us, so we've got to keep playing. I don't think anybody has fully given up yet. People might think that, but anything can happen in this (Big Ten) tournament.''
Center Meyers Leonard hopes Illinois can pull a surprise in the Big Ten tournament, but acknowledged the Illini are just about out of chances.
''Coach has always been there for us and wanted what's best for us,'' Leonard said. ''He's trying to turn us into good young men and he has. We really haven't had any problems this year and a lot of times he likes to take the blame, but it's our fault. He's fought for us and we've just had a rough time this year. No doubt about it.''
Senior Jordan Taylor scored 16 points in his final home game, and Josh Gasser added 16 points and eight rebounds for the Badgers (23-8, 12-6), who have won three straight going into the Big Ten tournament. The Badgers honored Taylor and fellow senior Rob Wilson in their final Kohl Center appearances.
It was the 265th victory at Wisconsin for Badgers coach Bo Ryan, tying Harold ''Bud'' Foster for most wins in the program's history.
Wisconsin came into Sunday's game allowing an NCAA-best 51.8 points per game, and they looked every bit like the nation's top defensive team as they held the struggling Illini to only 18 points in the first half.
The Badgers took away whatever fight was left in the Illini early, hitting five of their first nine 3-point attempts as they charged to a 22-9 lead.
The Illini got a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Paul at the end of the half, one of the few highlights of the opening 20 minutes, but still went into halftime trailing 31-18 - their lowest scoring output in a half all season.
The Illini shot 6 for 24 from the field in the first half, with seven turnovers and only one assist.
The Badgers weren't particularly impressive on offense in the first half, but they didn't have to be. Taylor had a team-high eight points at the half, going 2 for 3 from 3-point range.
Illinois made something of a surge to start the second half, cutting the lead to nine on two free throws by Paul with 15:47 left.
But after the teams traded baskets, Frank Kaminsky hit a 3-pointer for Wisconsin and a pass from Paul went off the hands of Leonard and out of bounds.
Even with his team struggling and his own future in doubt, Weber was as intense and focused as ever, yelling and gesturing on the sidelines.
Leading 42-32 with just over 11 minutes left, Wisconsin used a short scoring spurt to take control of the game. Wilson hit a long jumper, Jared Berggren blocked Paul on the other end and Mike Bruesewitz hit a jumper.
After two free throws by Leonard, Gasser hit a 3-pointer to give the Badgers a 49-34 lead with 9 minutes left.