EVANSTON - Now a little panic begins to creep in.
Despite coming in with the better record and legitimate NCAA Tournament hopes, the Northwestern Wildcats (18-6, 7-4 B1G) were outplayed by the Illinois Fighting Illini (14-11, 4-8) Tuesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena and lost 68-61.
Bryant McIntosh led all scorers with 21 points, but he shot 8-of-20 from the field while Malcolm Hill led the way for Illinois with 14 points and 9 rebounds.
Te’Jon Lucas provided Hill with crucial support, pouring in 11 points to go along with 6 assists. He also hit a massive layup to give Illinois the lead towards the end of the second half.
The game got off to a slow start offensively, but the four points that Northwestern did score in the first few minutes were very loud. Dererk Pardon opened the scoring with a two handed slam off of an Isiah Brown assist, and Vic Law tired to bring the house down with a tomahawk jam in transition. Pardon threw down another one after the first media timeout, and the rout was on.
Or so it appeared.
After the early the string of dunks, Northwestern’s offense looked out of sorts throughout the first half, and Illinois managed to get going after starting 1-of-8 from the field. The Illini ripped off a 15-0 run over a five minutes span midway through the half to take a 19-10 lead.
An Isiah Brown jumper ended a five minute scoreless streak for the Wildcats, but the red-hot Illini answered right back, and kept answering. Illinois shot 70 percent during the run to build a with 7:34 left in the half led 21-12 with 7:34 left in the half .
Over the next two minutes of game time, both teams went scoreless, with Gavin Skelly and Malcolm Hill trading air-balled threes.
Then with five minutes left in the half, Vic Law breathed life into Northwestern with a three pointer before Gavin Skelly followed with four straight points off the bench to cut the Illinois lead to 21-19.
After a timeout, Illinois responded right back with a three pointer and a three-point play to basically negate the previous Northwestern run. But, the Wildcats had finally gotten the offense and the crowd going. They used a late 7-0 run, featuring another Vic Law three pointer, to take a 28-27 lead. Illinois then hit 1-of-2 at the free throw line and, after a Nate Taphorn buzzer beater attempt rimmed out, the game was tied at 28 apiece.
Northwestern picked up right where they left off to start the second half. Taphorn hit a corner three and Law hit his third three of the night to continue the Wildcats scoring outburst. However, the Illini hadn’t cooled off much either as the two teams traded buckets. At the under-16 timeout, Northwestern had a slim 39-37 lead.
Out of the timeout, the Wildcats’ offense went cold once again, not scoring for over three minutes and allowing Illinois to go on a 9-0 run. With Northwestern trailing 44-39, Chris Collins was forced to call a timeout.
Out of the timeout, Northwestern got a a couple of McIntosh jumpers to go, but Illinois answered back with five points of its own. Then the Wildcats, who had been aggressive all night, got into the bonus with over eight minutes to go and took full advantage. After scoring five straight at the line, McIntosh hit a long jumper to make it 51-50 Illinois with seven minutes left.
Maverick Morgan and McIntosh traded buckets to make it 53-52, before McIntosh hit a three to give Northwestern its first lead since the opening minutes of the second half. John Groce was then forced to take a timeout with Northwestern leading 55-53 at the 4:48 mark.
A Hill jumper tied the game once again, and 1-of-2 from the line from both Hill and McIntosh kept it that way for a while.
Vic Law broke the deadlock with a corner three to put Northwestern up 59-56, but Michael Finke answered with a three of this own and Hill hit both at the line to give the Illini the lead again at 61-59. Macintosh then answered with two free throws to once again tie the contest.
A Te’Jon Lucas layup with 1:37 to go gave Illinois the lead right back, before a Finke jumper extended the lead to four. Northwestern would not score again on the night, going cold at the worst possible moment and losing 68-61.
With the loss, Northwestern falls to 18-6 on the season and 7-4 in the Big Ten. The Wildcats now sit at fourth place in the Big Ten, and will take on the conference-leading Wisconsin Badgers in Madison Sunday.