As the 11th seed in the Big Ten tournament, Illini was supposed to be home by now, looking ahead to next season. Instead, the inspired Illini are in the semifinals.
"We have nothing to lose. That's the mentality we came out with," freshman guard Cory Bradford said Friday night after the Illini stunned No. 17 Indiana, 82-66 for their second upset over a ranked team in as many nights.
"It seemed like everything was going pretty well for us," added Bradford.
That was an understatement. The Illini, behind the play of hustling freshman Lucas Johnson, beat the Hoosiers to the ball all night and dominated the boards 51-26, including 22-7 on the offensive end.
"We're definitely gaining confidence. We go into each game with a lot of confidence, knowing we can play with each team that comes up," said Johnson, who was diving for balls and crashing for rebounds all over the floor of the United Center while scoring a career-high 17 points.
"I wouldn't consider us a Cinderella team," he said.
One night after they ousted No. 23 Minnesota, the Illini pulled away in the second half behind the play of Johnson, 6-foot-10 center Fess Hawkins and Bradford.
Hawkins had a career-high 16 points and Bradford, the star of Thursday's upset of Minnesota, scored all 15 of his points in the second half. Sergio McClain added 13 points and keyed Illinois' smothering defense.
Illinois showed no signs of fatigue from two games in as many nights.
"I think winning, and particularly winning as they have in these two games, takes the place of fatigue. Winning is kind of a panacea for fatigue," Indiana coach Bob Knight said.
"I don't know if that's an aberration in rebounding. We have not been a really good rebounding team. We just didn't go after the ball very well."
| Damir Krupalija and Larry Robinson battle for the rebound. (AP)|
Illinois (13-17) will now meet Ohio State in Saturday's semifinals.
Indiana (22-10) goes home to await the NCAA tournament bids Sunday. The Hoosiers, who beat Illinois twice during the regular season, got 19 points from Larry Richardson and 15 from A.J. Guyton, who shot just 5-of-13. Leading scorer Luke Recker was held to seven points, nearly 10 under his average.
"They just outplayed us," Recker said. "They worked harder, beat us to loose balls. That's why the score ended up like it did."
Johnson's 3-pointer, a jumper and 3-pointer from Bradford, Victor Chukwudebe's layup and a basket by Robert Archibald started the Illini on a 12-2 run opening the second half and gave them a 47-33 lead.
Bradford connected again from 3-point range to build the lead to 54-39 with just under 11 minutes remaining, and the Illini led again by 15 on a basket by Hawkins.
But Guyton's 3-pointer capped a quick 7-0 spurt and brought the Hoosiers within eight as a large and noisy Indiana contingent at the United Center came to life.
But just as quickly, the Illini regained control. Hawkins and Johnson made two free throws each and McClain drove the middle, hit the basket and then converted a three-point play.
That gave the Illini a 63-48 lead with just more than six minutes left.
Bradford, whose six 3-pointers paced the win over Minnesota, went to the bench four minutes into the game after picking up his second foul and was scoreless in the first half.
Illinois led 35-31 at the half.
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