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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern hangs on to edge Illinois

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The Illini gave them a scare, but the Wildcats managed to finally bank a close game.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

AJ Turner’s game-winning, second-chance three gave Northwestern (10-5, 1-3 B1G) a much-needed first Big Ten win over lowly Illinois (4-11, 0-4). An ugly start and a free throw-laden second half slowed things down, but for one of the first times all year, Northwestern executed down the stretch to come away with a close win.

The Wildcats finished with five players in double figures, spreading the scoring load. Chicago native Ayo Dosunmu led the way with 18 for the Illini.

After a slow start, Northwestern seemed to kick into gear during the middle of the first half. Behind an infusion of energy from Ryan Greer, the Wildcats jumped out to a 24-16 lead, feasting on Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s defense en route to eight dunks or layups.

But the Illini stormed back. With Northwestern going ice cold from the outside, finishing the first half 2-14 on shots outside the paint, Illinois worked the Wildcat defense inside. Led by a season-high eight points from backup center Adonis De La Rosa, the Illini used a 15-1 run to take a 31-25 halftime lead.

The second half began equally slowly for Northwestern. Plenty of defensive stops both ways eventually gave way to a potential and-one for De LA Rosa, and Illinois was threatening to run away with it. But Ryan Taylor hit a three, and then Anthony Gaines nearly doubled his year-long total from beyond the arc with back-to-back triples to tie the game. A few minutes later, two free throws from Vic Law gave Northwestern their first lead since the first half.

Immediately, the game began to slow down. Free throws were traded back and forth, with Dosunmu leading the way for the Illini and Pardon for the Wildcats. All of a sudden, with 8:15 to go in the game, 18 second-half fouls had been called.

But despite the game’s ugliness, the Wildcats were suddenly thriving. A Vic Law and-1 gave Northwestern a 4 point lead. Immediately, though, they started to get sloppy again.

Three straight ugly turnovers (and some...questionable foul calls) gave Illinois a brief lead, but Taylor shot back with a pair of threes (amid an ongoing hail of free throws) reclaiming the lead for the Wildcats.

Quickly, though, Law was whistled on a ticky-tack foul for his fourth, and Frazier beat him on the next possession to swing things back in favor for the Illini. Second-chance buckets back and forth begat a missed Gaines three, and with 55.3 seconds left Illinois had the ball up one.

But the Wildcats forced a shot clock violation, and had the chance to make up for their recent close game woes.

Turner tried another setback three, which fell woefully short. But Pardon was there for a huge board, and AJ didn’t miss his second chance. With 10.5 to go, the Wildcats, up 68-66, needed just one more stop.

And after a broken play, they got it. Frazier couldn’t hit a contested three, and Northwestern survived Illinois.

Turner and Taylor each finished with 12, the former adding four assists. Law led the way for the Wildcats with 13 and 10, and Pardon and Gaines each reached double figures as well. For the Illini, De La Rosa ended up with 12 off the bench.

Northwestern will host 25th-ranked Iowa on Wednesday night.