CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- If Tuesday night's game against North Carolina was a midterm exam, Illinois coach Bruce Weber wasn't ready to give his team an "A" for the full 40 minutes.
"Probably a B-plus," he allowed.
But the Illini's 79-67 victory over the Tar Heels was more impressive in the eyes of North Carolina coach Roy Williams, and one Illinois player, guard Demetri McCamey, in particular.
"Demetri was something else," Williams said. "He never looked like he felt pressure or anything."
McCamey finished with 17 points, second to teammate Mike Davis' 20. But he had eight assists in a game where five Illini (No. 21 ESPN/USA Today, No. 20) scored in double figures, and keyed a tough perimeter defense for Illinois (7-1) that put the Tar Heels (4-3) on their heels early and kept them there.
"We go as Demetri goes," Davis said. "He opened with eight quick points, and it was all downhill from there."
North Carolina center Tyler Zeller picked up three early fouls and spent more than 9 minutes of the first half on the bench while the Illini built a 37-30 halftime lead.
John Henson led the Tar Heels with 16 points while Zeller finished with 10.
Illinois opened the second half with a thud of a dunk by Davis, a short basket by Richmond and two points from Tisdale to stretch what had been a seven-point halftime lead to 43-32 less than 2 minutes into the second half.
A 3-pointer by Bill Cole, playing off the bench for the first time this season, upped Illinois' lead to 56-43 with 13:19 to play.
Freshman center Meyers Leonard followed that less than a minute later with a dunk off a nice dribble into the lane and feed from Richardson that stretched Illinois' lead to 58-43.
The Tar Heels shaved what had been a 16-point lead to 66-55 with a 3-pointer by Justin Watts and two points inside by Henson with 7:21 to play.
But McCamey and Davis pushed the lead to 70-55 on the next two possessions. McCamey hit a short jump shot and Davis made two of three free throws.
Weber said Davis had a particularly bad practice Monday but responded well Tuesday.
"[Davis] came back tonight and played probably as good as he's played all year," Weber said.
Early, it looked like Zeller would dominate the Illini. He opened the game with an easy dunk and a long, smooth jump shot in the game's first 2:11.
But the fouls came quickly, and without him in the game Richmond, Tisdale and Davis piled up first-half points and rebounds, combining for 16 points and 11 boards among them in the first 20 minutes.
Williams said he asked Zeller when he picked up his second foul if he could stay in the game and play effectively without getting another too quickly. Zeller said he could, and Williams, going against his usual strategy, let him stay in the game.
"It's my fault," Williams said. "I've always taken a guy out [with two fouls] and let them sit for a minute."
Zeller picked up his third foul with 9:02 to play in the half. He didn't return until the second half.
The Illini took the lead for good at 16-14 just short of 11 minutes into the game on a 3-pointer by McCamey.
Illinois went into the half with a 37-30 lead off a 3 at the buzzer by Richardson, his third of the first half. He trotted off the court to the kind of congratulations from teammates and the thunderous sellout crowd that are normally reserved for a victory.
Harrison Barnes of North Carolina struggled, scoring eight points and pulling down five rebounds in 27 minutes. At one point in the second half he heard chants of "Over-rated!" from the crowd.
Williams defended his star freshman, saying he can expect to have bad nights while he learns. And he criticized ESPN and other media outlets for building up the young player as the season started only to tear him down a few weeks later.
"If you're going to anoint the guy and then three weeks later crucify him, that's ridiculous," Williams said.