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UNLV game may be last chance for Illini seniors

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

TULSA, Okla. — Before late-season road games at Ohio State and Purdue and again before the Big Ten tournament last weekend, Illinois’ seniors talked about how each challenge was a great oppor-tunity for them to brush aside their inconsistency and go out with a major sense of accomplishment.

The Illini didn’t come through on any of those occasions, of course, and this season continues to be defined by inconsistency from game to game — and sometimes from minute to minute.

Senior-laden teams aren’t supposed to play that way, so the game tonight between ninth-seeded Illinois and eighth-seeded UNLV might be the final chance for seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole to show they can be successful leaders.

‘‘It’s do or die,’’ Davis said before the Illini’s open practice Thursday at the BOK Center. ‘‘It’s our last game if we lose, and I’m not ready for it to be over. I know they’re not ready for it to be over. We want to make a little run here.

‘‘We’ve been playing well. We went through stretches where we played really well for 32 or 33 minutes, and then we fell apart at the end of the game. So we’ve got to put a complete 40 minutes together. If we do that, we’ll be pretty tough to beat.’’

Despite the obvious disappointment at their inability to close tight games this season, Illinois’ players are feeling good about themselves because getting an NCAA berth was something they didn’t accomplish last season.

‘‘The regular season is over with; the Big Ten season, that’s over with,’’ McCamey said. ‘‘I’ve been watching games on TV all day, and there have been major upsets and things like that. It’s a new season. Anybody can beat anybody on any given day now.’’

One thing, though, probably hasn’t changed: For the Illini to win, McCamey has to play well. That’s certainly UNLV’s opinion. The Runnin’ Rebels’ pressure defense will be focused on getting the ball out of McCamey’s hands.

‘‘We have to focus on stopping [McCamey] early and not let him get his confidence up,’’ UNLV swingman Chace Stanback said.

Although McCamey is Illinois’ leading scorer at 14.8 points per game, coach Bruce Weber doesn’t think scoring is the only way he can help the team.

‘‘We’re 16-0 when he has six or seven or more assists,’’ Weber said. ‘‘When they come and trap, they jam up the ball screens or whatever they might do, he’s got to make the right decisions and get it to the open man.’’

This figures to be one of the more intriguing games of the second round, and it’s an interesting matchup beyond the fact that Runnin’ Rebels coach Lon Kruger used to coach the Illini. Both teams had rough stretches late and can define their seasons positively with a victory.

Weber is hoping his players can perform well when it matters.

‘‘The key for us is when we get to the gut-check part of games,’’ he said. ‘‘[At times,] we’d stand around and just look at each other.’’

The hope is that a new season will bring a new story line.

‘‘Maybe March will be good to us,’’ Weber said.

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