Despite poor outside shooting and foul trouble to their top two players, Northwestern rallied from an 8 point deficit to beat Illinois for the first time in 12 meetings.
Jeremy Nash led the way for Northwestern, with a career high 22 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 assists. He was forced to take on much more responsibility than usual on offense, as Michael Thompson and John Shurna both got in early foul trouble and had to sit out large portions of the first half. The 'Cats actually started off the night hot, leading 13-2 early before Bill Carmody inexplicably went to the 1-3-1 zone and Illinois went on a 20-2 run to take back the lead. With both Thompson and Shurna on the bench for the last 6 minutes of the first half, Illinois seemed poised to break the game wide open, but inspired bench play from Kyle Rowley of all people and 12 first half points from Drew Crawford allowed Northwestern to go into the locker room down only three.
In the second half, Illinois continued their hot shooting (55% for the game), Thompson picked up his 4th foul, and the 'Cats couldn't buy a basket, as I believe they were 4 of 23 from three at one point midway through the second half. The deficit was 7 with just over seven minutes to play, and things didn't look good. But Northwestern went on a run, starting with a John Shurna dunk on a beautifully designed play out of a timeout, and finishing with back-to-back threes by Nash and Thompson to give the 'Cats a 4 point lead they would never relinquish. With just under 3 minutes left, Illinois had a chance to cut into the deficit, but out of a media timeout the Illini were somehow unaware the shot clock was down to 12 and committed a costly violation. Shurna buried a three on the next possession, and Northwestern held on thanks to hitting their free throws and a timely put back lay-up by Nash.
This was really a gut check win for Northwestern, as they held on for dear life despite the foul trouble, and played fantastic down the stretch. Nash was the clear MVP for NU, Luka Mirkovic had another solid game with 9 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists, Shurna finished with 19 points, and despite only 4 points Thompson did an excellent job running the point as usual. Northwestern had only 7 turnovers to Illinois' 17, and held their own on the boards, rebounding 28% of their misses and only allowing Illinois to rebound 25% of theirs.
On the flip side, a crushing loss for Illinois and a lot of the blame falls on their shoulders. The late shot clock violation was the most glaring error, but they also apparently forgot about Mike Tisdale inside in the second half and made almost no effort to get him the ball. Tisdale finished with 14 points, but had only 6 field goal attempts the entire game, and one was a three in the final seconds with the game all but decided. As much as I'd love to give Northwestern's defense credit (and Carmody did thankfully play mostly matchup zone/ switching man to man in the second half), it had more to do with Illinois just not looking for him inside. And the final Illinois error was not constantly attacking Thompson off the dribble when Juice had 4 fouls. Thompson played almost 10 minutes with 4 fouls and the Illini were never able to exploit that. The Illini fans at Hail to the Orange are not pleased, and I can't say I blame them.
It certainly wasn't pretty, but Northwestern came away with a win and that's all that really matters. So let's enjoy it tonight, and hope they can build on this win and give Minnesota a game at the barn on Tuesday night.
Highlights, thanks again to NUBears