CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Western Carolina is ready to go home.
The Catamounts finished a seven-game road trip by pushing No. 13 Illinois before falling 72-64 Tuesday.
"We're very tired," Western Carolina coach Larry Hunter said after the Catamounts forced a 54-54 tie with 5:53 seconds left.
"We played seven straight games all over the place. I've got guys with a lot of heart. They displayed that a year ago."
Western Carolina hosts Appalachian State in a Southern Conference game on Saturday.
"We're going to make some noise in our league before it's over," Hunter said.
After hanging on for the win, the Illini (9-0) head into their first big challenge of the season.
When Illinois plays at No. 10 Gonzaga on Saturday, it's the Illini's first meeting against a ranked opponent.
"I've been told (Gonzaga coach Mark Few) thinks it's his best team," Illinois John Groce said. "That's a great environment. It's an exciting challenge, a national TV game against a top 10 team."
Illinois faced a bigger test than expected from Western Carolina (3-6).
"One area where we did get it done is we were able to win the game because we were able to make big plays," Groce said.
Guard D.J. Richardson hit 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions for a 62-56 lead for the Illini.
After a Western Carolina turnover, Illini guard Tracy Abrams made two free throws and added a basket on the following possession for a 66-56 lead.
Guard Brandon Paul led Illinois with 14 points, but was 5 of 15 from the field.
Richardson scored 13 points with all of his three baskets coming from behind the 3-point line. Abrams finished with 10 points and three assists.
Illinois was 3 of 14 from the field to start the game before the Illini stretched the advantage to 32-22 at halftime behind a 15-8 run to end the half.
"You have to have a better start, a better first half," Richardson said. "We always play half a game and have spurts where we play good and spurts where we play bad. We have to be tough. They out-toughed us."
Guard Preston Ross led Western Carolina with 17 points. Guard Brandon Boggs added 16 points off the bench. Guard James Sinclair had 13 points and eight rebounds.
Western Carolina managed just 27 percent shooting while losing 14 turnovers in the first half. The Catamounts kept the game close despite 22 turnovers with 6 of 10 shooting from the 3-point line in the second half.
"I like Illinois' team," Hunter said. "They've got a lot of good pieces to the puzzle."
The Illini played for the first time in six days after logging eight games early, including a four-game swing through Hawaii. Illinois beat Butler for the Maui Invitational title.
Western Carolina fell to 1-14 all-time against teams from the Big Ten.
The game between Illinois and Western Carolina also served as a reunion for Hunter and Illini assistant Dustin Ford, who played for Hunter at Ohio and coached under him at Western Carolina.
Ford worked at Western Carolina for three seasons, concluding in 2008. He then returned to Ohio, where he joined Groce's staff before moving with Groce to Illinois prior to this season.