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Rapid Reaction: No. 9 Illinois’ physicality overwhelms Northwestern in 96-66 road rout

New Year's blues.

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

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Northwestern rang in 2024 with the rudest of awakenings.

In one of NU’s worst Big Ten losses in recent memory, No. 9 Illinois (11-2, 2-0 B1G) pounded the ‘Cats (10-3, 1-1 B1G) into obvlivion on both ends on the floor in a 96-66 road blowout. From the tip onward, the Illini dominated Northwestern on both sides of the ball with their strength and size.

U of I shot over 60% from the field, and Marcus Domask was at the center of it all. The grad student dropped 32 points on 11-of-15 shooting, only making one three-pointer. Three other Illinois players reached double figures: Justin Harmon (20), Quincy Guerrier (14) and Coleman Hawkins (13).

For most of the night, Boo Buie was Northwestern’s only consistent source of offense. He scored 20 points in 27 minutes on 6-of-14 shooting. Ty Berry added 14 points, and Luke Hunger added 10.

Hawkins got the scoring started with a three-pointer off a feed from Luke Goode. Ty Rodgers quickly added to the quick start by bullying Buie in the post for a layup, which gave Illinois a 5-0 lead. After a Domask jumper on the following possession, Northwestern found itself down seven with the Illinois crowd buzzing.

Buie got NU on the board with his trademark floater, but Domask answered with a score of his own. While Ty Berry and No. 0 each responded with threes to pull the ‘Cats within two, the Illini kept their edge. Hawkins boxed out Matthew Nicholson to earn a putback and-one, which gave Illinois a 16-10 lead at the under-16. The big man’s free throw after the break extended U of I’s lead to seven.

Nick Martinelli added a floater, but the Illini went on to rack up six straight points, which extended their lead to 22-12 with under 13 minutes to play in the first half. Illinois only continued to add to its momentum, as a Hawkins violent block on Blake Preston sprung Harmon’s fastbreak layup. To make matters worse, Goode outhustled NU to secure a loose ball for an offensive rebound off Harmon’s miss, sending Northwestern into the under-12 on a sour note.

The Wildcats continued to show fight, though, securing three offensive rebounds on a possession that sparked another floater from Martinelli. A minute later, Luke Hunger hit a wide open three-pointer to NU’s deficit to 26-19. However, Brad Underwood’s team answered with a flurry of buckets, punctuating its 11-0 response with a Guerrier slam and an and-one from Goode. Another fastbreak dunk from Guerrier after Domask stripped Buie only added fuel to the fire. Once Domask dropped a fadeaway shot over Berry, Northwestern found itself down 39-21 with 4:28 to go in the first half.

Down but not out, Buie and Barnhizer scrapped their way for layups to sandwich a bucket from Harmon and pull within 14. Undeterred, Domask nailed a three-pointer and bullied his way for a midrange jumper to send the Illini into the half up 46-29.

Illinois shot 60% in the first half while holding Northwestern to a 31% mark from the field. It racked up 20 of its 46 points in the paint, and its physicality from one through five overwhelmed the Wildcats on both ends.

Rodgers and Ryan Langborg — who was held scoreless in the first half — traded baskets to open the final 20 minutes. For the most part, though, Illinois kept up its physical dominance, as it scored the next six points to extend its lead to 23. Yet another back-down and jump shot from Domask on Buie prompted Collins to utilize another timeout with 16:53 to go.

While a thunderous putback dunk from Nicholson and a midrange J from Buie kept the Illini lead in the low 20s, a Harmon three-pointer kept the momentum in Illinois’ favor. U of I led 57-35 at the under-16.

It was Domask’s night, and he wouldn’t surrender the spotlight even with the game in hand. He hit two more shots to get to 23 points for the game before briefly checking out with a little over 12 minutes to play. Soon enough, Hawkins got going with a three-pointer and a dunk, which threw the State Farm Center into a frenzy. It put the ‘Cats down 69-42 at the under-12.

From there, the party only continued for Illinois, which extended its lead to 30. Buie caught a technical foul in the process. It marked NU’s worst loss since its 112-76 defeat to Iowa in the 2022 Big Ten Tournament, and its worst regular season loss since Nov. 19, 2017, when it fell to Texas Tech by 36 points.

Northwestern will return to Evanston to face Michigan State on Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. CT. You can catch the action on the Big Ten Network.