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Cody Zeller carries Indiana past Illinois in Big Ten tourney

Indiana's Cody Zeller dunks during second half an NCAA college basketball game Big Ten tournament against Illinois Friday March 15

Indiana's Cody Zeller dunks during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten tournament against Illinois Friday, March 15, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Updated: March 15, 2013 4:06PM

The second time was not a charm.

Illinois, which had shocked Indiana 74-72 in Champaign on Feb. 7, battled a bit in the second half after another sputtering start. But in the end, the Hoosiers showed why they’re going to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Indiana knocked the Illini out of the Big Ten tournament 80-64 on Friday behind a cut-down-the-nets-style performance from Cody Zeller. Going 9 for 11 from the field, and 6 for 6 from the line, the 7-foot sophomore center had 24 points and pulled down nine rebounds.

``He’s a load, a terrific player,’’ Illini coach John Groce said. ``There’s a reason he’s on all those magazine covers. For a guy his size, he can really run.’’

IU (27-5) advances to the semi-finals of the Big Ten tournament for the first time since 2006.

The Illini (22-12) will head home to await their NCAA tournament assignment, which is likely to be a No. 7 or 8 seed.

``I feel like once we put two halves together, we’ll be a force to be reckoned with,’’ Brandon Paul said. ``I feel like we have a lot of basketball left.’’

Putting together two halves will be easier said than done. But saying it is a start.

In a disappointed post-game locker room, Paul and Tracy Abrams, who each had 16 points to lead Illinois, stressed the importance of Illinois playing well at both ends for 40 minutes.

``They told the team we need to play two halves. That’s great,’’ said Groce, who’s also optimistic about Illinois’ NCAA prospects. ``These guys care a lot about their team. This time of year, that’s really important.’’

Making shots, playing locked-in defense and snatching rebounds—what Groce calls executing—are also important. Illinois didn’t do those things consistently enough against IU.

In the first half, Illinois shot 26 percent. In the second half, it allowed Indiana to shoot 65 percent.

In the first 11-plus minutes of the game, Illinois made only two baskets, leaving Groce thankful to be down 35-21 at the break.

``I thought we were really resilient today,’’ said Groce, who liked Illinois’ first-half defense. ``The offense was not good in the first half. [The score] could have been really ugly.’’

Digging in, Illinois cut the IU lead to 60-52 with eight minutes to play. But that was as close as it got. Indiana, which felt it lifted off the pedal when it lost at Illinois, kept the heat on this time.

Beyond Zeller, the Hoosiers got big games from Christian Watford (15 points), Victor Oladipo (12 points, 11 rebounds), Will Sheehy (11 points, 4 for 4) and Jordan Hulls (seven assists and big-time defense).

``We learned from that game,’’ Watford said.

In that game, D.J. Richardson and Paul combined for 44 points on 14-for-29 shooting. In this game, they had 25 points on 4-for-23 shooting in this rematch as Indiana cranked up its defense.

``That’s the story of the game,’’ Crean said. ``These guys have seen the last seven minutes of that game numerous times.’’

On one hand, Illinois enters NCAA play having lost four of five. On the other hand, it has won 7 of 11, with three road losses against teams that were 49-5 at home, plus this loss to loaded Indiana.

``We play in the toughest conference in the country,’’ said Abram, who think the Illini are ready for the Big Dance. ``We’ll see what happens.’’

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