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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern falls to Illinois 73-66 on the road

Yet again the ‘Cats were close, but not close enough.

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

A thrilling final 30 minutes was not enough to make up for the hole that the ‘Cats dug themselves into in the first 10 on Tuesday night in Champaign.

Despite a strong second-half comeback, Northwestern (6-13, 3-12 B1G) couldn’t pull off the upset over No. 5 Illinois (15-5, 11-3 B1G), dropping its 12th straight game in a 73-66 loss. From the very end of the first half through the second, the ‘Cats became offensively aggressive, but Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu closed it out in the end.

Chase Audige led all scorers with 22 points and seven rebounds for the ‘Cats, and Pete Nance added 14 and six. For the Illini, Kofi Cockburn had 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Northwestern looked to post-up against the Illinois defense early on, but the ‘Cats could not get their shots to fall, as the Illini jumped out to a 14-3 start almost immediately. Chris Collins once again started with the two-bigs lineup featuring Nance and Ryan Young, but neither was a match for Illinois’ Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Kofi Cockburn throughout the first half.

The action in the State Farm Center was nothing short of a rout, with Northwestern finding themselves down by as much as 18 in the opening period. Plenty a shot was missed, as Northwestern stayed stuck on its seven-point total until the 8:27 mark of the first. The Illini were far from flawless, committing seven turnovers in the half, but the ‘Cats could not capitalize and scored a grand total of zero points off said mistakes until Boo Buie converted a jumper late in the period.

While it wasn’t a stellar performance from Buie thus far, the sophomore guard found some success driving into the teeth of the Illinois defense, completing a three-point play after being fouled by Trent Frazier at just under the two-minute mark. Young also started to get things going inside with five straight points before finding himself in foul trouble and getting sent to the bench. Overall the last five minutes were positive for the ‘Cats, as they began to look more alive on both ends of the court, and an Audige throw right before the halftime buzzer cut the Illini lead to 38-26 at the half.

After not connecting on a single three in the first half, Northwestern came out hot from deep after the break. Big threes were drained by Nance, Audige and Anthony Gaines to bring the score within seven at 42-35. At the under-16 timeout, the ‘Cats were on a 16-6 run after looking sluggish to start the contest and shockingly were right there in the game with a chance to compete.

A Miller Kopp bucket brought NU within four, but Frazier answered right back with a three to keep things at a distance. Neither team was shooting well through the early portions of the second half, but foul trouble spelled trouble for the Wildcats, as they committed 22 violations on the night and saw both Buie and Robbie Beran foul out.

For Brad Underwood’s team, the second half was dominated by Cockburn. The sophomore looked nearly unstoppable against some of NU’s smaller defenders.

After hanging around for a little while, the ‘Cats began to surge at the six-minute mark, as a three from Pete Nance and a pick-six by Chase Audige made it a one-possession game.

A gorgeous skyhook from Nance made it a one-point game, but alas, Illinois went to their leader Dosumnu down the stretch, and he more than delivered, hitting three consecutive jump shots for eight points. That was just enough for Illinois to escape with a 73-66.

Northwestern returns to the court this Sunday against No. 21 Wisconsin (15-7, 9-6 B1G) back home at Welsh Ryan-Arena.