CHICAGO — A season to forget ended with a game to forget.
In a back-and-forth, tightly contested overtime game between in-state rivals, Illinois (12-20, 8-13 Big Ten) topped Northwestern (13-19, 4-17) 75-69 though the Wildcats had the lead early the extra frame.
A.J. Turner and Dererk Pardon combined for 37 points, but a combination of Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s 26 points on 12-of-15 shooting and some late threes by the Illini guards sealed the win at the United Center.
With Vic Law in street clothes after suffering a shin injury in the final game of the regular season, the Wildcats’ offense struggled, particularly in the first half.
The lid stayed on the basket for a while after Illinois took a 6-4 lead. Northwestern seemed to be infatuated with jump shots, and, as has been the case all season, that was not a winning strategy. The team started the game just 2-of-11 from the field, which included shots that bricked so hard the few people sitting in the nosebleeds could hear the clank of the rim.
Illinois big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili (I had to quadruple check to make sure I spelled that correctly), hurt Northwestern early on. The one-man-wrecking-crew scored the first 14 points of the game for the Illini.
The scoring picked up for Northwestern after the under-12 media timeout as Aaron Falzon and Miller Kopp hit consecutive jumpers, but Northwestern remained married to outside shots and failed to get the ball to Pardon inside. The big man was relatively quiet aside from two jump shots in the first half, attempting only six shots and failing to register a rebound.
Defensively, Pardon had an uncharacteristically poor half. He just couldn’t do much with Bezhanishvili, who entered the locker room leading all scorers with 16 points on an impressive 7-for-10 shooting.
Fortunately, the start of the second half was not a continuation for the first offensively. NU scored on its first five possessions, to include two baskets from Pardon in the post.
A.J. Turner started the period off 4-for-4 from the field and added two assists. The person next to me turned and asked, “where has this been all year?” after he hit his second three of the half. Good question.
Collins definitely made a point to get Pardon more involved in the second. He was involved in almost every play whether it was through pick-and-rolls or post-ups. The results showed: he had 10 points in the second and on 4-for-5 shooting.
Illinois went to a 3-2 zone about midway through the second half, probably in an effort to contain Pardon as he got it going a little bit in the second. The Wildcats struggled to adjust to the different look; they got decent shots from three, but didn’t hit many (NU went 8-of-36 from three in the game). It went back to hoisting threes with little success after doing a good job of attacking and feeding the ball to Pardon early in the half.
Bezhanishvili continued to be a handful in the second half. Whether it was Benson or Pardon guarding him, the team just couldn’t slow him down. Also, Trent Frazier started giving Northwestern problems after a quiet first half. He finished with 21 points, 13 of those coming in the second half.
Turner went quiet for a while after his hot start. He still got good looks, but wasn’t able to maintain the pace he started at. That’s understandable: he made his first four shots. He came through when it mattered, though, knocking down a pull-up three to tie the game at 56.
Andres Feliz converted an and-one basket to give Illinois a two-point lead with 35 seconds left, but Bezhanishvili fouled out contesting an A.J. Turner drive moments later. Turner would come up big again, knocking down two clutch free throws to tie the game.
Northwestern got the stop it needed. The crowd was treated to some free basketball and was transported back to the Aaron Falzon game in the early stages of overtime. The redshirt junior nailed a three from the corner to open overtime, then was fouled shooting another trey moments later. He hit two free throws to give NU a two-point advantage.
Illinois hit back-to-back threes to go up 71-66. Falzon continued the heroics, hitting a three on the ensuing possession to cut the lead to two. Northwestern didn’t get a stop this time as Feliz made a jumper to go back up four.
Illinois didn’t give up the lead after that.