Just like the charter flight shared on the way down here, there was plenty of orange and red in the house when Illinois met Illinois State in the Cancun Challenge championship here at a Moon Palace ballroom Wednesday.
There was also some blue from Illini senior guard Sam Maniscalco, who was holding his breath.
After Maniscalco lost a turnover with 10 seconds left and the Illini clinging to a two-point lead, a long 3-pointer by Illinois State guard Tyler Brown bounced off the rim with 2 seconds left as Illinois survived with a 63-59 victory.
"Please don't make it,'' pleaded Maniscalco as that shot flew toward the basket.
Illinois won a tournament championship for the first time in three seasons after remaining undefeated against the Redbirds in eight meetings all time and the first in eight years.
"He got that shot off my turnover,'' Maniscalco said. "Probably the worst one of my career, to be honest. It wasn't pretty, but this will still be big dividends down the road for us to win one like that.''
Unlike two years ago, when the Illini finished a lost weekend in Las Vegas with a heartbreaker to Bradley, the Illini found a way to win. While there might not be much for Illinois to gain by playing an instate rival, there's plenty to lose.
"That's a lot more fun,'' said Illini guard D.J. Richardson, who scored 13 points and earned the tournament MVP. "Just getting a championship at any level feels great. Two years ago, that loss hurt us and could have been the downfall of our NCAA hopes.''
Illinois improved to 5-0 before hosting Chicago State Sunday (noon, BTN).
"You've got to find ways to win,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "We could never do that last year. We lost a lot of close games. We have to continue making progress.''
Maniscalco led the Illini with 14 points and earned a spot on the all-tournament team. Guard Brandon Paul became more aggressive and scored 12 while also finishing with six assists and five rebounds. Center Meyers Leonard also had 10 points and eight assists.
Illinois State fell to 3-2 and lost for the first time since the season opener. The Redbirds not only saw the late 3-point attempt by Brown bounce off the rim but also another late 3-pointer waved off when officials said Brown stepped out of bounds before the shot.
"We had one go in, then they took it away,'' said Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich, who spent one season as an Illini assistant nine years ago. "Then we also have one on the rim and around the rim to take the lead. It's a tough ending.
"I thought we played a tremendous second half. Illinois finished and made the big plays down the stretch. It's a heartbreaking loss.''
Maniscalco said his stubborn left ankle felt fine after playing on two straight days, and he made a handful of big plays in the second half as the Illini were forced to rally. Illinois State jumped to a 44-37 lead with a 12-0 run shortly after halftime.
Forward Jackie Carmichael scored 17 points to lead Illinois State. Forward Jon Ekey had 13 points while guard John Wilkins finished with 10. The Redbirds were picked to finish eighth in the Missouri Valley Conference, but they looked much better than the preseason billing. The Redbirds were 9 of 18 from the 3-point line after hitting 4 of 6 in the second half.
Richardson scored eight points as Illinois overcame a 7-0 start by the Redbirds to lead 13-11. He's been the most consistent contributor for the Illini through the season's first few weeks, and perhaps it paid off by allowing him to take some hardware home.
"I'm glad somebody recognized that,'' Weber said. "Meyers did great. Sammy made plays, but D.J. has been very consistent and got us off to a good start.
"Meyers should have been all-tournament. There's no doubt he's got to learn. You have to keep coming and playing We told him he got the big trophy. We won the championship.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.Illinois report card Front court -- B- The Illini were expected to handle the Redbirds inside, but Meyers Leonard didn't put up the monster numbers like he did Tuesday night vs. Richmond, and Tyler Griffey found himself in foul trouble.
Back court -- AThe three-guard lineup of D.J. Richardson, Sam Maniscalco and Brandon Paul combined for 39 points. Richardson headed home with the MVP award.
Bench -- CFor the second straight night, the Illini didn't go as far down the bench as expected earlier this season. Only seven players went more than 8 minutes.
Overall -- B-Illinois had more to lose than to gain. Anyone who went to Las Vegas and watched the loss to Bradley two years ago remembered that. Behind some solid guard play, the Illini survived and won a tournament for the first time since the South Padre Invitational in 2008.