It was a fun first 20 minutes of play. Then, it all came crashing down.
Northwestern’s five-game winning streak came to an end against Illinois in crushing fashion Thursday night. The ‘Cats lost by a score of 66-62 at State Farm Center, after leading 37-19 at half.
Despite the loss, Boo Buie continued to play out of his mind. The guard played in two different jerseys, No. 4 and his usual No. 0, as a result of a brutal jersey rip in the first half. He was equally as effective in both, scoring 35 points and shooting 6-of-11 from three.
Outside of Buie, the Wildcats shot just 10-of-39 from the field, including 3-of-10 from deep.
The Illini comeback was led by Terrance Shannon Jr., who had 26 points and shot 8-of-10 from the field in the win.
Northwestern got the scoring started with a three pointer from Robbie Beran, a promising sign given the forward’s recent difficult stretch. A few possessions later, Buie hammered home another three to give the ‘Cats a 6-2 lead early.
Per usual, the Northwestern defense and its lethal trap started strong. At the under-16 TV timeout, the Illini had mustered only four points and were 2-of-7 from the field. Another triple, this time from Chase Audige, stretched the ‘Cats’ lead to 11-4 at the break.
Fresh out of the timeout, Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins converted on an easy lay-in to bring the score to 11-6, but Buie followed that up with another three on the ensuing possession. The ‘Cats had made four of their first five from beyond the arc.
But the Illini didn’t go away. Riding buckets from four different players, including gametime decision Shannon Jr., Illinois used an eight-point run to draw the score back even at 14-14. Northwestern head coach Chris Collins called a timeout to try to settle things down.
It worked. Audige scored on the next possession, and then Buie knocked down his third three-pointer in the first ten minutes of the contest. Then, he hit his fourth. Chants of “You can’t stop him!” erupted from the contingent of Wildcat students who traveled to Champaign as Northwestern opened its lead back up to 24-15 by the under-eight.
After the media break, Audige and Beran had steals on successive possessions, and the Northwestern defense continued to frustrate Illinois. The ‘Cats forced eight turnovers in the game’s first 15 minutes.
First-year guard Sincere Harris gave the Illini faithful something to cheer about with a huge fast-break slam in Matt Nicholson’s face, but it wouldn’t deter Northwestern’s shooters. Brooks Barnhizer checked in with a three with 4:30 left, and then Buie converted on an and-one attempt on the next possession. The ‘Cats held a 32-19 lead with three minutes left in the half.
Down the stretch, Northwestern continued to take the ball away and then put it in the basket. Buie nailed yet another three, only his fifth of the evening, stretching the lead to 37-19 at half. The ‘Cats ended the period on a 13-2 run.
Barnhizer and Audige had seven and nine, respectively, but it was the Boo Buie show for Northwestern in the first. The senior had 22 points, more than the entire Illinois team. Defensively, the ‘Cats put on a clinic in the first 20 minutes, forcing 10 turnovers and racking up six steals.
The Fighting Illini, on the other hand, struggled to get anything going, and continuously shot themselves in the foot with turnovers and poor shooting (9-of-26 from the field). Harris, Hawkins and Ty Rogers led the way, each with four.
In the second half, Shannon Jr. with a corner three-ball on Illinois’ first possession. A few trips down the court later, Matthew Mayer converted his first three-ball of the night, and was fouled shooting another one on the next possession. Momentum continued to shift after another made three from Shannon Jr., and Collins called a timeout, now up just 39-31.
Shannon Jr. and the Illini continued to erase the deficit, pulling the score to 40-36 with just over 14 minutes remaining, but Buie stopped the bleeding with his sixth three of the night. Then, Tydus Verhoeven got on the board for the first time, and Buie scored again. All the sudden, the ‘Cats lead was back to 11 at 47-36.
Buie’s unbelievable night continued on the next possession, when he casually converted his second and-one of the night, notching his 32nd point with 12 minutes still left to play. The ‘Cats led 50-36.
The two teams traded fouls and buckets for a period, but Shannon Jr. hit his third three of the night with 9:15 left to pull the score to 54-45 as the arena erupted. At the under-eight, the lead was just 54-47.
Out of the break, Mayer made another three and the arena continued to grow louder. Luckily for Northwestern, though, Buie got to the line twice and made three of four to stem the 11-point run. The score was 57-50 with 5:30 left to play.
However, Shannon Jr. continued to give the ‘Cats defense fits, nailing another three, and converting a fast break layup to cut the deficit to two. Collins called his second timeout of the half up 59-57.
After the timeout, Harris immediately evened the score at 59 with a layup as the crowd went nuts. Mayer then broke the tie, knocking down two free throws after Verhoeven fouled out of the game. The ‘Cats had lost what was once a commanding lead.
Barnhizer drew the game back even on the next possession, and the score was tied at 61 with two minutes remaining. After Buie drew a charge on Illinois’ next trip down the court, the ‘Cats failed to convert and lost the ball when the replay showed a rebound glance off Nicholson and go out of bounds.
Shannon Jr. drove to the rack and scored on the next possession, giving Illinois the lead with a minute remaining. Nicholson followed that up for Northwestern by drawing a foul, but only made 1-of-2 from the line. Illinois called a timeout up 63-62 with 42 seconds to play.
After the timeout, Hawkins uncorked a long three and missed, but Illinois got the ball back after another replay showed the rebound hitting a Northwestern player and landing out of bounds. With 18 seconds left, Ty Berry sent Shannon Jr. to the line. He made one and missed the other, bringing the score to 64-62.
Buie slipped and got rejected on the next possession, and the ‘Cats were forced to foul Shannon Jr. again with 2.7 ticks on the clock. This time, he made them both, and it was over.
Northwestern will take on Maryland this Sunday at 11 a.m. CT on the Big Ten Network.