EVANSTON — In a conference season filled with injuries and disappointing finishes, one of Northwestern's emerging program cornerstones has made immeasurable strides that should leave Wildcats fans excited for the future. That would be Scottie Lindsey, who scored 18 points in Northwestern's exciting 58-56 win over Illinois on Saturday and has reached double figures in three of the Wildcats' last four games.
Northwestern couldn't get anything going on offense in the first half, as the Fighting Illini led 23-21 at the intermission after a scoring-scarce 20 minutes of play. But scoring opened up a bit after the break, as the Wildcats finally started to make some shots. After back-to-back threes from Lindsey, Northwestern took a 38-35 lead with just over 13 minutes to play.
"I thought the defenses dominated in the first half and both teams were a little overanxious offensively," Collins said. "Then, in the second half, both teams had a hard time stopping each other."
But the Fighting Illini — led by Maverick Morgan (12 points) — kept fighting back and went up by four points when the Wildcats left Morgan alone at the rim for an easy dunk.
Then Tre Demps took over.
Demps, who missed his first six shots of the game, went on a personal 12-2 run — on the strength of four three-pointers on four consecutive possessions — to put Northwestern ahead 54-49. The shooting frenzy on the court put Welsh-Ryan Arena into a similarly frenetic state, as the senior put his team squarely on his back and carried it through yet another scoring drought. This time, though, it was able to hold the lead down the stretch with made free throws and good defense.
Still, after a crazy sequence at end of the game in which Demps missed a three with 12 seconds left that could have sealed away the win, Illinois had a chance to send the game into overtime. Kendrick Nunn rebounded Demps' miss and, without any timeouts left, the Illini had to dribble into the frontcourt, where Bryant McIntosh used Northwestern's final foul to give with 2.7 seconds to play. On the ensuing in-bounds, Sanjay Lumpkin smothered Illinois' Malcolm Hill to prevent a game-tying shot, finishing off the win.
"I'm really proud of Sanjay," Collins said of his junior defensive standout. "Malcolm Hill's a really tough cover. We spent a lot of time the last three days trying to defend him, so him not being able to throw up a 20-to-30-point night was a huge key to the game."
The Wildcats beating their in-state rival in the only meeting between the two is obviously a big story, but the most important takeaway from the game is the play of Lindsey, who added two blocks and a big steal to his scoring output. The Illinois native — whom John Groce never offered — went 6-for-10 from the field and 4-for-7 from three-point range in his most complete game of the season.
In the first half, Lindsey had an enormous block on an Aaron Jordan layup and similarly stuffed Morgan late in regulation. Also, his steal of Hill midway through the second half led to Northwestern points and helped get the crowd into an otherwise dull affair. It's a far cry for Lindsey from January 28, when he didn't play a single minute in Northwestern's 76-45 thumping at the hands of Michigan State.
On his play leading up to that benching, Lindsey said he "wasn't doing everything [he] was supposed to do to help the team. I needed to come out with more energy and help out more. I did that tonight."
The same sentiment was repeated by both Tre Demps and Chris Collins, who each praised Lindsey for rebounding from that low point in his season and posting 50 percent-plus marks from the field in each of the four games since.
Prior to his 15-point performance in Northwestern's loss to Iowa two weeks ago, Lindsey had scored 10 or more points just four times all season. Each of those occurrences had come in nonconference play against subpar competition.
"He has had a renewed fire," Collins said. "He has really played well for us and was a huge reason we won this game. If he's playing like that, I need him on the floor. He has a bright future."
While Demps matched Lindsey's 18 points, it was clear the Wildcats' best player tonight was Lindsey. Whether it was his shooting confidence from beyond the arc or the multiple huge defensive plays he made, the sophomore stepped up when his point guard, McIntosh (9 assists), wasn't able to post his usual scoring numbers. For a Northwestern team that needs scoring from whomever can provide it, that was huge, and it was the biggest factor in the Wildcats' fifth Big Ten win.