LINCOLN, Neb. -- Illinois shed tears during its previous visit to Nebraska.
The Illini were all smiles after their 71-51 victory over the Cornhuskers on Tuesday night.
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D.J. Richardson scored 30 points, Brandon Paul added 14 and Illinois ended a three-game losing streak.
Richardson's career-best performance came after he called a players-only meeting over the weekend, on the heels of an embarrassing 14-point loss to Northwestern. He wouldn't divulge what was said, but it's safe to assume he and his fellow seniors drove home the point that Illinois' recent play had been unacceptable.
Sam McLaurin opened the game with a dunk, and then Paul stole the ball from Brandon Ubel. Illinois never trailed.
"Their effort level was off the charts on the defensive end, maybe as consistent as we've been with our effort defensively in a couple weeks, from start to finish," Illini coach John Groce said. "I thought the defensive end is where we needed it to start. Today that was what spearheaded things, and everything else fell in line after that."
Illinois endured one of its most devastating defeats in its previous visit to Lincoln. The Illini were outscored 36-4 over portions of the first and second halves Feb. 18 on their way to an 80-57 loss to a poor Nebraska team that ended up firing its coach, Doc Sadler, after the season. The performance prompted some Illinois players to weep on the bench and in the locker room, and it sealed the firing of Bruce Weber.
This season Illinois started 12-0, won the Maui Invitational and was rated in the top 10. But the Illini lost five of seven after that, including double-digit defeats to Minnesota, Wisconsin and Northwestern.
Asked if the season was at a tipping point coming into the Nebraska game, Groce said: "I don't think that way. We just didn't play very good. We've got good kids. Their attitude has been off the charts. They come to practice every day ready to practice.
"Others might have felt that way. We've got a good group. Our seniors met this week and called their own meeting. They take a lot of pride in wanting to compete and play and get off to a better start than we have lately, and I thought we did that tonight."
Illinois (15-5, 2-4 Big Ten) held Nebraska without a field goal for the last 8:51 of the first half and led 35-23 at the break. The Huskers got no closer than six points the rest of the way.
Dylan Talley had 16 points and Ubel added 10 for the Cornhuskers (10-10, 1-6).
Groce recorded his 100th win in five seasons as a head coach.
The Illini shot 45 percent and committed 14 turnovers, but they had more offensive rebounds (12) than Nebraska had total rebounds (10) in the first half and finished with a 40-28 advantage on the boards.
Nebraska was 2 of 14 on 3s and shot 32 percent for the game, but it was the rebounding disparity that irked first-year coach Tim Miles.
"I've coached a lot of games at a lot of different levels, and I don't think I've ever been as disappointed or embarrassed in one area of the game," he said. "You have to credit Illinois. They came out and they hadn't been making 3s. They had to find another area to score, and they hit the offensive glass. We have to have more readiness."
Richardson made 9 of 14 shots, including 6 of 9 3-pointers after going 12 of his previous 55 from long range. He also held Nebraska sharpshooter Ray Gallegos to five points on 2-of-8 shooting.
"Being a senior and a leader for this team, I didn't let the outside stuff get to me," Richardson said. "I kept shooting like coach wanted me to. They fell for me tonight. I'm going to keep shooting, no matter what."
Andre Almeida scored to trim Illinois' lead to six points with 13 minutes left, but Paul converted a three-point play and made two more free throws to make it 49-38.
Two Richardson free throws upped the Illini lead to 11 points before Talley's 3 and David Rivers' lay-in cut it to 51-44 and forced Groce to call timeout.
The game got away from Nebraska at that point. Almeida was whistled for fouling Paul after the timeout, prompting howls from the crowd, and Paul made the free throws.
Richardson followed with a 3-pointer, and while Nebraska was huddled in a timeout, Miles was assessed a technical foul. Richardson made the free throws to make it 58-44 with 7:26 left.
The 6-foot-11 Nnanna Egwu blocked two of Ubel's shots and had 10 rebounds to go with eight points. Joseph Bertrand had a career-high five steals for the Illini.
"We see what we can do when we come out and attack right away," Egwu said. "Now we know what we have to do every single game. Through that stretch we got comfortable with the way we played when we started 12-0. We kind of relaxed and thought just by going out there we were going to come out and play well, and it came back to bite us."
Nebraska freshman Shavon Shields, who scored a career-best 29 points on 10-of-11 shooting against Penn State, committed his fourth foul 2 minutes into the second half and didn't score until he made a free throw with 11:16 left.
Shields, who had averaged 13 points and 6.8 rebounds his previous five games, missed both his field goals and had two points in 21 minutes before fouling out with 5:13 to play.
"I think it was him being a freshman," Miles said. "Now you've played pretty good, and a hopped-up opponent is going to come after you. I don't think he responded very well. He'll learn from that."