EVANSTON, Ill. — Just when you thought Northwestern couldn't outdo itself.
As it has countless times this season, Northwestern (9-10, 2-8 B1G) failed to maintain its second-half lead against an in-conference rival and pull off the upset. The Wildcats lost to Illinois (15-5, 8-2 B1G) 59-56.
Pete Nance led the way for the ‘Cats, finishing with 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting. No other Northwestern player finished in double figures, with Boo Buie and Ty Berry ending with nine and eight points, respectively.
For Illinois, it was the Kofi Cockburn show. The 7-foot center finished with 22 points on 10-of-17 shooting. No other Illini player finished in double figures.
After a minute of scoreless play to begin the game, a thunderous dunk from Cockburn and a three from Alfonso Plummer from the wing put Illinois up by five.
Northwestern missed its first four shots from the field before Nance put the Wildcats on the board with a turnaround jumper from the block. However, Trent Frazier responded with a three of his own to increase the Illinois lead to 8-2 heading into the under-16 media timeout.
Both teams traded scores coming out of the break. Baskets from Nance and Williams sandwiched Frazier’s second three, making the score 13-6 in Illinois’s favor with 12 minutes left in the first half.
The ‘Cats shot just 3-for-13 from the field in the first ten minutes. The Illini continued to capitalize on NU’s offensive struggles with another dunk from Cockburn and a layup from RJ Melendez to increase the Illini lead to 17-7.
Northwestern’s shooting woes culminated in Boo Buie’s missed layup on a four-on-one fastbreak. Melendez immediately took advantage with a transition dunk on the other end to put Illinois up 19-9 with under nine minutes to play.
Cockburn made his presence felt on both ends of the floor. After blocking Buie from behind, the star center swished a contested turnaround jumper as the shot clock expired to extend the Illinois lead even further.
But the Illini struggled to generate much momentum outside of Cockburn. And with five minutes left in the half, the Wildcats finally broke a bit out of their extended shooting slump. A pair of three-pointers from Nance and Berry forced Brad Underwood to take a timeout and cut the Illinois lead to 21-17.
Both teams struggled offensively in the last few minutes, but a layup from Berry kept the Wildcats afloat. Despite shooting just 6-for-26 from the field, Northwestern only trailed 24-19 at halftime. Nance led all scorers with nine points after the first 20 minutes of action.
Unlike the first half, both offenses came out guns blazing out of the break. Cockburn continued to dominate with an and-one layup and a hook shot, but Nance and Buie responded with scores to keep the ‘Cats within reach.
Despite Cockburn’s great play, strong team defense from the ‘Cats forced three Illinois turnovers in the first four minutes. Free throws from Buie and Matthew Nicholson cut the Illinois lead to 29-27.
Following the under-16 stoppage, Buie capitalized on a bad shot from Cockburn with a turnaround jumper to even the game at 29. The Illinois star responded with a score, but Berry responded with a three to give Northwestern its first lead of the afternoon at 32-31.
An airballed three from Frazier and turnaround makes by Nance and Williams fired up the crowd even more and extended the Northwestern edge to 36-33. However, Jacob Grandison quickly answered with a layup to bring the Illini within a point going into the under-12 break.
Scores from Melendez and Grandison pulled the Illini ahead, but a three from Nance and two jumpers from Ryan Greer gave the Wildcats a 43-40 lead. A three-point play from Williams punctuated a 10-3 run for NU and put the ‘Cats up by six with under eight minutes to play.
Nance kept pouring it on following the break, burying a turnaround midrange jumper and his third three-pointer of the game. It helped the Wildcats maintain a five-point edge despite two more layups from Cockburn. Brandin Podziemski responded with a shot from downtown to cut the Northwestern lead to 51-49.
With under four minutes to play, Williams fouled Da'monte Williams to give the Illini a one-and-one. The Illinois guard converted both free throws to even the score.
Chase Audige then put Northwestern ahead by two with a stepback jumper, but a layup from Cockburn and a putback dunk from Williams gave Illinois a 55-53 lead and forced Chris Collins to take a timeout with about 90 seconds remaining.
After Nance missed a turnaround, Buie fouled Cockburn on the other end. The big man made one of two free throws to increase the Illini lead to three.
On the other end, Greer found himself open on the perimeter but couldn’t convert. Illinois sank a few free throws to finish the ‘Cats off, 59-56.
Northwestern will remain at home to take on Rutgers on Tuesday, February 1. You can catch the action on Big Ten Network.