UWM had stunned Alabama and Boston College with a suffocating, fullcourt press, and it gave the Illini some fits, too. The Panthers are tenacious to the point of annoyance, hanging so close to the opponents they’re practically inside their jerseys. And just when the Illini thought they’d shed one, there was another, ready to stick a hand, an arm, anything in their face.
But Brown and Williams were just too savvy for the Panthers to contain for long.
“We knew they were going to speed us up,” Williams said. “My job as a point guard is to slow the game and get everybody involved.”
The game looked more like a track meet for the first 10 minutes, with the teams racing up and down the court, trading shot for shot. But Illinois gradually slowed it down and took control.
Clinging to a 29-26 lead with 3 minutes left in the first half, Williams worked the shot clock, dribbling around the top of the key, his eyes scanning the entire floor. Finally, with only 4 seconds left on the clock, he drove forward and dished to a wide-open Powell for a dunk.
Head forced a turnover on the next possession and fed Brown for a 3-pointer. Williams than stole the ball and found Powell again for a layup that gave Illinois a 36-26 lead with 2:24 to play.
Williams extended the lead in the second half, scoring on three straight possessions. He was hacked from behind as he went up for a layup, and made one free throw. He then scored on a fast-break layup — fed by Brown after a steal — and finished the run with a 3 to give Illinois a 51-37 lead with 16:29 to play.
“Today I had to score a little more,” Williams said. “My main job is to get people the ball and, after that, look for my shot.”
Illinois pushed the lead to as much as 17 before McCants made a 3-pointer to spark an 8-0 run that cut the Illini’s lead to 70-61 with 4:17 to play. The Panthers got within 9 again with 1:09 to play, but Williams fed Head for a 3-pointer that sealed the victory.
“We knew how it felt last year to lose in this position,” Brown said. “We wanted to take a step farther, and that’s what we did.”
Notes: Illinois didn’t get any points from its bench. ... UWM was 7-of-29 from 3-point range. ... UWM reserve center Derrick Ford missed the game after slipping and injuring his left ankle in pregame warmups. ... Illinois improved to 10-1 at the Allstate Arena.
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