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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern claws back, falls late to No. 13 Illinois 73-66

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Ouch.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — They got our hopes up again.

Despite a strong second-half run from Northwestern, Illinois (18-6, 11-3 B1G) rode an early barrage of three-pointers to an 73-66 victory over the Wildcats (12-11, 5-9 B1G).

Ty Berry led the way for the Wildcats, finishing with 16 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Chase Audige added 12 points in another high-volume shooting game. For Illinois, Kofi Cockburn and Alfonso Plummer were in control with 19 points each.

Cockburn opened the scoring with a layup. Pete Nance responded with a jumper, but a three-pointer by Plummer and another layup by Cockburn put the Illini up 7-2.

After a few misses by both teams, Plummer and Buie traded scores inside the paint. A couple possessions later, Plummer buried another shot from downtown to extend Illinois’s lead to 12-4 heading into the under-16 break.

The Illini kept up the momentum with another three by R.J. Melendez. Ryan Young then made a free throw to end a scoring drought which lasted over three minutes, but Melendez responded with another three to put the Illini up a lot to a little.

Following a make from Chase Audige, Trent Frazier joined the fun with a three of his own to make the Illinois lead 21-7. Nance answered with a three, which was Northwestern’s first. The Wildcats shot just 1-of-5 from long range in the first eight minutes while the Illini went 5-of-9 from deep.

Coming out of the under-12 media timeout, Cockburn immediately took control of the paint. He made a layup and followed that with two offensive rebounds on the next possession, which culminated in a successful and-one. A three from Berry left the score at 26-13 Illinois with ten minutes to play in the half.

Despite scores from Ryan Young and Audige, Da’Monte Williams and Plummer knocked down two more three-pointers to put Illinois up 32-17 going into the under-eight media timeout.

Buie and Andre Curbelo each hit midrange jumpers following the stoppage. After a few misses on both ends, Plummer hit his fourth three-pointer of the half. Audige then converted two free throws to make the score 37-22 in Illinois’s favor.

With under four minutes in the half, Berry and Williams traded threes. After a turnover from Buie, Plummer hit a floater to extend the Illinois lead to 17. Nance made his second shot from long range to respond and cut the deficit to two touchdowns.

Both teams then traded a few misses until Brad Underwood took a timeout with 30 seconds in the half. Frazier and Buie both made layups to end the half with Illinois leading 44-30. Nance led the ‘Cats with eight points at the break. For the Illini, it was all Plummer, as he had 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting.

To open the second half, Julian Roper got on the board with a quick layup. After that, though, both teams’ shooting woes from the end of the first half continued. No one scored for two minutes until Cockburn knocked down a jumper to give the Illini a 46-32 edge. Both teams continued their sloppy play into the under-16 break with four total turnovers in two minutes.

Omar Payne changed the tone with a thunderous dunk off of a lob from Frazier. He followed that up by blocking Elyjah Williams on the other end, which led to a fast break dunk by Melendez to give Illinois its largest lead of the day at 50-32.

The ‘Cats weren’t out of it yet, though. Young broke Northwestern’s five minute scoring drought with a layup. A few possessions later, both teams exchanged threes again. The ‘Cats answered Plummer’s fifth three-pointer with long range makes by Berry and Robbie Beran to cut the Illini lead to 53-41 with under 12 minutes to play.

Berry continued his brilliant shooting with two free throws and his fourth three-pointer after a layup from Curbelo. He sparked a massive 15-2 Northwestern run. Casey Simmons and Beran both added to the avalanche with scores of their own, forcing Underwood to call a timeout and slashed the Illinois edge to 55-50 with under nine minutes to play.

The Wildcats had chances to keep the offensive momentum rolling, but Berry and Buie both missed threes which would have brought the ‘Cats within a possession. Illinois failed to capitalize, however, as Cockburn missed two free throws, allowing Northwestern to regain control with another jumper by Audige and a Simmons to make the score 55-54.

After Underwood took another timeout, Cockburn finally ended Illinois’s five minute scoring drought of their own with a three-point play. Audige responded with two free throws, but Cockburn made a layup and the front end of a one-and-one. The center forced Chris Collins to take a timeout as he put the Illini up 61-56.

Simmons continued making an impact off the bench with another fastbreak score. However, Frazier and Melendez each made two free throws to give Illinois some breathing room. Melendez made two more after Buie converted a pair to extend the Illinois lead to 67-60.

Nance, who was on the bench during Northwestern’s game-changing run, scored his first points of the half with a jumper. Then, with under a minute and a half remaining, Cockburn made another layup. Berry made a jumper to respond, but Illinois maintained its five-point lead with less than a minute to play.

Plummer then missed two free throws, which allowed Audige to bring the ‘Cats within a possession. Collins called another timeout with 23 seconds left as Illinois held a 69-66 edge.

Roper almost forced a turnover on an inbound play, but his foot was out of bounds while he got his hand on the ball. NU almost forced a turnover again, but Roper then fouled Jacob Grandison. The Illinois wing then buried a pair of free throws to all but end the game.

The Wildcats will head back to Evanston to take on No. 3 Purdue on Wednesday, February 16 at 8:00 p.m.