EVANSTON — Northwestern won a back-and-forth battle for the Lincoln State, 58-56 over Illinois, thanks to stellar bench play and a streak of brilliance from Tre Demps.
Both teams couldn't find a bucket early, which made for a less-than-beautiful beginning to the game. Illinois missed its first six shots before connecting on back to back three-pointers, but Northwestern was unable to capitalize on the Illini's slow start. The Wildcats struggled to hit shots too. Aaron Falzon and Tre Demps missed two wide-open threes in the opening minutes and Northwestern found itself in an early 9-4 hole.
Northwestern made an effort early to get the ball low into Alex Olah, who started in place of Dererk Pardon, but the big Romanian's offensive struggles continued—he threw up a left-handed hook that air-balled and was rejected at the rim in the opening minutes. That forced Chris Collins to turn to Pardon early on.
Jordan Ash also made a surprisingly early appearance, coming on as the first guard substitute. At one point, Northwestern fielded the uncommon lineup of Jordan Ash-Demps-Scottie Lindsey-Gavin Skelly-Joey van Zegeren.
Lindsey provided a sizable spark off the bench with five quick points. A strong cut to the basket resulted in an open layup and a deep three pointer cut the deficit to 14-11 with 9:19 remaining. The three seemed to inject a little life into the arena. Northwestern then forced a turnover and Lindsey found Olah with a nifty bullet-pass that resulted in a layup. He even had a defensive highlight with a rejection of Aaron Jordan at the rim on a fast break.
Northwestern took its first lead since 2-0 on a Lindsey three-pointer that made it 19-16 in Northwestern's favor. The sophomore was one of very few offensive highlights for the Wildcats in the first half. Northwestern got only 10 points from its starters in the first half, with Demps (0 for 6) and Falzon (0 for 3) failing to score. Illinois headed to the break with a 23-21 lead.
Scoring picked up a bit in the second half. Sanjay Lumpkin got things going with a three-pointer, and Olah scored on Northwestern's next possession. However, Illinois started with two consecutive buckets of their own to maintain an advantage. A Khalid Lewis three-pointer gave Illinois a 33-30 lead with 15:30 remaining, but Lindsey answered in a huge way. He scored 8 straight points, starting with a slam and then a corner-three, to tie proceedings at 35. Northwestern then got a stop and Lindsey connected on his heat check for yet another three-pointer to give Northwestern a 38-35 advantage.
Lindsey's benchmate Gavin Skelly was also terrific. He facilitated the offense well from the elbow, played excellent defense and brought energy during his time on the floor.
The game remained tight throughout the middle of the second half, with the lead changing multiple times and neither team able to build more than a 3-point advantage before a Maverick Morgan dunk gave Illinois a 46-42 lead with 8:22 remaining. Olah often struggled to stick with the more agile Morgan in pick-and-roll situations.
Demps, after starting 0 of 6, caught blazing fire. He made four (!) consecutive threes out of a timeout to give Northwestern a 54-49 lead with 5:38 remaining. Illinois' D.J. Williams headed to the line with a chance to close the deficit to one, but missed a pair.
Illinois had the ball down 56-53 with under two minutes remaining. Lindsey stepped up once again with his second block of the game, which sent Tre Demps darting down the floor for a layup. Illinois, however answered with a Kendrick Nunn three that cut the deficit to 2.
Demps missed a three that would have iced the game, and Illinois regained possession with under 15 seconds remaining. Northwestern used its last foul to give with 2.6 seconds left and Illinois was unable to get a potential game-tying shot off. It was Sanjay Lumpkin's defense that sealed the victory.
-- Scottie Lindsey was terrific, and he's beginning to warrant a more significant role in the rotation. He's scored in double figures in three of the last four games, and played 30 minutes to Aaron Falzon's 14. Collins will have to think long and hard as to whether he'll start Lindsey in any of the five remaining games.
-- You have to admire Demps' perseverance. This game was a microcosm of his season; despite a terrible start, Demps didn't shy away from shooting and eventually caught fire. It's been a tumultuous season for the senior, and harsh critics have been plentiful, but he's steadied the course and has improved in conference play, just as he did last season.
-- Not a great night for Northwestern's three-point shooting bigs. Tonight was a second straight DNP for Nathan Taphorn. When you're a shooter who isn't shooting well and you're a defensive liability, it appears you won't play very often. Sounds about right. Aaron Falzon also only played 14 minutes.
-- Both teams shot only 50 percent from the free throw line, which won't please Illinois coach John Groce or Collins. Only 18 total free throws were attempted.
-- Northwestern cleaned up its act in the second half. After 10 first half turnovers, the Wildcats turned it over only twice in the second half.
-- Northwestern's bench scored 23 points. Illinois' only managed 9. On a night when Bryant McIntosh scored only 4 points, their contributions were vital.