A week into January, the ‘Cats are still searching for their first Big Ten win.
Even with a whopping 52-point second half, Northwestern’s first half deficit proved to be too much, as the Wildcats (6-8, 0-4 B1G) fell to the Illini (14-2, 4-1 B1G) by the score of 85-79, snapping a 14-game win streak against their in-state rival.
The Wildcats fell down by as much as 20 at the half, but narrowed the Illinois lead to just two late in the fourth. However, the Illini were able to pull away and climb to second in the conference.
Northwestern was led in scoring by Sydney Wood, Courtney Shaw and Kaylah Rainey, who combined for 48 points. Wood stacked the box score herself, tallying 19 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks, while Shaw added 17 on 8-of-10 shooting off the bench. Additionally, Caroline Lau provided a spark off the bench with eight points, including a pair of three-pointers in the second half.
For the Illini, all five of their starters scored 14 or more, with Makira Cook notching 23 points, six rebounds and four assists, with 12 of her points coming from threes. Kendall Bostic also added in 15 points and an absurd 16 rebounds, as she made her presence felt down low.
After controlling the opening tip, the ‘Cats had a sluggish start to the game offensively, missing four layups in the first four minutes of the game, before Caleigh Walsh hit a hook shot to finally get the Wildcats on the board. The Fighting Illini, on the other hand, had no issue putting the ball through the basket to open the game, hitting a pair of threes and converting their layups to force the ‘Cats to call a timeout halfway through the opening quarter.
Northwestern was able to pick it up a bit offensively after the timeout, with Shaw knocking down a jumper from the elbow and Jillian Brown drilling a wing three. Additionally, Wood converted five-of-six from the free-throw line, making her the ‘Cats leading scorer after one despite not making a field goal.
However, this offensive production didn’t translate to the other end of the floor, as Shoup-Hill hit her second shot from behind the arc and Genesis Bryant joined the party with a three of her own, putting the entire Illinois starting five in the scoring column through the opening 10 and giving the hosts a 20-14 lead at the end of the quarter.
NU began the second period with a pair of stops and a top of the key three by the first-year Lau, cutting the Illini lead to three, but the ‘Cats were hurt once again by their point blank misses on uncontested layups. The Illini, on the other hand, were able to convert their short range attempts, with Kendall Bostic and Adalia McKenzie both hitting a pair of layups in the midst of a 12-2 run for Illinois to put the Illini up 32-19 at the second quarter TV timeout.
Shaw brought an end to this run after the break, converting an and-one shot over 6’6 Aicha Ndour and Wood made her first field goal of the game with a layup of her own. Despite this offensive production, the Illini lead only grew, courtesy of three straight from behind the arc. This shooting gave the Illini a 41-24 lead, and caused Joe McKeown to call a timeout for a second time in the half.
The ‘Cats finished the half similar to how they began it, struggling to convert field goals despite having multiple open looks to close out the first half. The Illini lead ballooned to 20 at halftime with a score of 45-25, despite the ‘Cats cutting the lead to three to begin the period.
At the half, the ‘Cats had a 25.8% field goal percentage along with seven turnovers, with their only efficiency being found from the charity stripe, which was the only reason why the Illinois wasn’t even larger. Shaw and Wood led the ‘Cats in scoring through 20 minutes, both scoring seven points.
To begin the second half, Lau started at guard for the ‘Cats and made an instant impact. She had a crafty scoop layup and an assist to Courtney Shaw for a layup of her own. Unfortunately for ‘Cats fans, her third quarter stint was cut short, as she appeared to twist her right ankle on a behind the back move, resulting in a turnover and uncontested layup for the Illini.
This easy basket for Illinois did not halter the ‘Cats momentum, as Northwestern went on a 6-0 run, headlined by a tremendous sequence by Wood. After nearly grabbing her third steal of the game, she blocked a wing three-pointer and converted an impressive Euro step layup on the other end. Walsh and Shaw added in layups of their own to cut the Illini lead to 54-42, forcing the Illini to call their first timeout of the game. This led to Walsh blowing a kiss to the Illini’s Makira Cook that resulted in a shove, causing them both to receive technical fouls.
Both Wood and Walsh quickly made up for their technical fouls, with Cook hitting a three and Walsh making a great post move for a layup. Walsh then found Kaylah Rainey for a three pointer, cutting Illinois’ lead to single digits, 57-49.
The third quarter concluded as both offenses shot the lights out, with Wood nailing a step-back three to cut the lead to 63-56 heading into the fourth. Northwestern outscored Illinois 29-18 in the third, and the Wildcats surpassed their entire first-half point total in the quarter to get back into the game.
The break seemed to have little impact on both teams’ hot shooting, as the teams converted the first five shot attempts of the quarter. Illinois’ Cook continued to do her last name justice as she hit her fourth three-pointer to put her point total over 20. However, the ‘Cats continued to respond, with Rainey continuing her impressive half with a pair of layups as a part of a 7-0 run that cut the Illini lead to just two, 73-71.
Illinois gave itself a bit more breathing room courtesy of a physical McKenzie layup. An unforced travel by Weaver and an errant Walsh pass resulted in four easy Illini points. Rainey once again converted to keep the ‘Cats in the game with a layup, making it a two possession game at 79-73.
The Illini followed this up with a tremendous dish by Bryant that resulted in an easy layup, but Lau once again kept the ‘Cats in it with a wing three with just over two minutes to go. After a Walsh block, Wood got in transition and was fouled hard by Cook on her left handed layup attempt.
Wood missed the front end of her free throws, before McKeown elected not to foul and let Illinois play it out. The ‘Cats forced a tough Cook jumper, but couldn’t secure the rebound. Illinois did not squander their second chance, hitting an and-one layup to put Illinois up seven. This ended up being the dagger for the ‘Cats, and Illinois was able to hold on to beat the ‘Cats for the first time in 14 games. A valiant second-half effort came up short for the ‘Cats, as they couldn’t overcome their first-half offensive struggles in Champaign.
Northwestern will host the No. 6 Indiana Hoosiers at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday, Jan. 8 at 2 p.m. CST.