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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern falls short against Illinois 74-66

The ‘Cats hung in there but couldn’t deliver the upset

Illinois v Northwestern Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

EVANSTON—Northwestern (6-21, 1-16) put up an admirable fight yet ultimately fell short against in-state rival, the Illinois Fighting Illini (19-9, 11-6), in a 74-66 defeat. The ‘Cats refused to go away, battling back nearly every time the Illini went on a run. Finally, the Wildcats reached its breaking point after Alan Griffin splashed his fifth three pointer of the second half with five minutes remaining in the game.

Led by a combined 45 points from Chicagoland natives Ayo Dosunmu and Alan Griffin, the Fighting Illini’s guard play was too much for Northwestern to handle. For Northwestern, Pat Spencer paced the team with 18 points while Pete Nance got back on track with 12 points.

Before the game even began, it was apparent the Illini faithful made the three hour trek along I-57 North from Champaign. The crowd roared during Illinois’ starting lineup introductions, and, after a Kofi Cockburn slam dunk put the Illini up 4-0, the Illini fans further established their presence.

The Wildcats subsequently stopped the Illini run and responded with a 7-2 spurt of their own, with Miller Kopp splashing a three pointer over Dosunumu to take a 7-6 lead into the first media timeout.

Dosunmu riled up the Illini fanbase once again with an electric layup in transition, twisting the ball around his back and going around two NU defenders to score. The layup was Dosunmu’s second consecutive basket, adding to a 10-3 Illini run.

After a Griffin layup and three pointer, the Illini quickly raced out to a 29-16 lead, and, yet again, the Wildcats were in the danger zone. The ‘Cats responded, though, as Pete Nance hit a three pointer over Kofi Cockburn, and Pat Spencer converted an and-one layup to key a 6-0 Wildcat run. The baskets cut the Fighting Illini’s lead to seven points with just under four minutes remaining in the first half. Illinois and Northwestern continued to swap baskets into halftime, where the Illini led 34-26.

Robbie Beran opened the second half for NU with a powerful dunk on a drive to the basket, yet the Illini still forced Collins to spend a timeout before the second half’s first media timeout. Collins’ timeout was successful, as Kopp hit a three pointer and Pat Spencer converted another and-one layup and free throw to cut the Illini’s lead to five.

Despite five more points from Pat Spencer before the next timeout, Illinois retained a seven point lead with Griffin contributing a pair of three pointers. The Illini finally dashed Northwestern’s comeback hope with a 10-4 run that featured two more three pointers from Griffin.

Illinois led 61-48 at the under-eight minute media timeout, an insurmountable deficit for the Wildcats to overcome. After the media timeout, Griffin hit his sixth three pointer of the game take a 16 point lead. After this three pointer, Collins hit his breaking point. He furiously called a timeout and immediately flashed six fingers in Beran’s face to represent the number of three pointers Griffin splashed.

The Wildcats did resiliently battle back after Griffin’s final three pointer, as NU trailed 66-59 with under three minutes remaining. Still, the deficit was too much to overcome as Illinois coasted to a season sweep of Northwestern.

Looking ahead, the Wildcats will travel to Nebraska on Sunday in its best remaining opportunity for a win this season. On Saturday, though, Northwestern’s women basketball team will play Illinois in a chance to secure its first ever Big Ten Championship.