MADISON, Wis. — Even by coach Bruce Weber's exacting standards, it's now official: This 6th-ranked, 20-2 University of Illinois basketball team is special.
That became a point beyond debate Tuesday night when Illinois came from 11 points down in the first half to steamroll Wisconsin 66-51, a victory that vaults the Illini into sole possession of first place in the Big Ten Conference at 6-2.
Wisconsin (15-6, 5-3) has lost just twice in five years in Big Ten home games and Illinois owns both victories.
After Weber issued a challenge 10 days ago to be "special" and asked his team point-blank, "How good to you want to be?," Illinois answered loud and clear.
"For us to come up here and win two years in a row is unbelievable, for me and the program," said Illini senior Dee Brown, who scored 16 points and shared team scoring honors with Rich McBride.
"This was huge for us, a huge boost for our confidence."
Weber was clearly satisfied with the outcome and he could point to a half-dozen heroes who turned the game around after Wisconsin grabbed an early 24-13 lead.
"We made some strides as a team," Weber said. "Wisconsin plays great defense, they have a great system and I just kind of challenged our guys to match it.
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"We talked about defense, discipline and rebounding tonight. We outdid what they normally do. We out-toughed them, I guess."
McBride was 4-for-6 from 3-point range and equaled Brown's 16 points. But perhaps no one was bigger than Brian Randle, who had 12 points, 13 rebounds and whose defense was instrumental in making life difficult for Tucker.
A 19-0 run in the first half dramatically flipped the momentum in Illinois' favor and it came with senior James Augustine in foul trouble when Weber turned to a smaller lineup that is becoming one of his favorites.
Augustine was on the bench with two fouls at the 15:15 mark of the first half and when Wisconsin's Alando Tucker scored with 9:25 to go, the Badgers had built a 24-13 lead. To say the least, Weber was worried.
"James was on the bench and it just kept getting worse and worse," he said. "Finally I just said, That's enough,' and put James back in there with the smaller lineup."
Augustine, Brian Randle and guards Brown, McBride and Jamar Smith (alternating with Chester Frazier) sparked the surge when Augustine returned with 7:41 to go.
Holding Wisconsin without a point for nearly nine minutes, Illinois came roaring back.
A hook shot by Shaun Pruitt started the push. It was followed by McBride's jumper that cut the Wisconsin lead to 24-17. Randle's drive with 4:39 to go made it 24-19 and when Randle rebounded in a missed 3-pointer by Brown, it was 24-21.
McBride tied it with a 25-foot 3-pointer at the 3:27 mark and Brown's long alley oop pass to Augustine was dunked for a 26-24 Illini lead.
Then freshman Jamar Smith (12 points) rained in a deep 3-pointer for a 29-24 lead and Weber got Augustine out of the game at the 1:24 mark, still with two fouls.