EVANSTON- It was arguably the most exciting game for both teams so far this season. On Sunday, the Northwestern Wildcats (10-5, 1-3 Big Ten) pulled out a dramatic last-second victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini (4-11, 0-4) at Welsh-Ryan Arena for their first Big Ten win of the season. In the 176th meeting between these archrivals, this game had everything. Good, bad, drama, excitement, and everything in between. The near sell out crowd was tuned in from start to finish.
Both teams played a sloppy first half that was filled with 15 combined turnovers as both teams shot for just 38-percent each in the first 30 minutes. But neither team lost confidence despite their first half struggles. The Illini took a 31-25 lead at halftime.
The second half was an entirely different story. Both teams cut down on the turnovers, made better shot selections, and tightened up on defense on both ends. The Wildcats and Illini were matching each other almost shot for shot until the last two minutes of the game. During that stretch NU outscored Illinois 5-2, and thanks to an A.J. Turner three point shot -along with forcing the Illini to miss two of their final four shots- the “Cardiac Cats” pulled off the 68-66 win.
“A really good college basketball game, a very exciting game, a game in which a lot of plays were made. Unfortunately Northwestern made the last shot,” said Illinois head coach Brad Underwood after the game.
Vic Law (13 points, 10 rebounds), Dererk Pardon (10 points, 3 blocks), Ryan Taylor (12 points, 4-of-8 three point shots), A.J. Turner (12 points, 4 assists), and Anthony Gaines (11 points, 3-of-7 field goals) all finished in double figures for Northwestern.
“It was a really hard fought game today. It was about two teams that were playing hard, and two teams that were searching for their first conference win,” said Northwestern head coach Chris Collins in his post-game comments.
The Illini were led by Ayo Dosunmu (18 points, 6-of-12 field goals), Adonis De La Rosa (12 points, 3 rebounds), and Da’Monte Williams (10 points, 8-of-10 free throws) while the rest of the team was held to 26 combined points on 16-of-56 shots. Illinois also missed all 11 of their three point attempts and finished the game with 12 turnovers.
“I thought both teams made a lot of plays… We didn’t get a great look at the end. I thought (however) that our half court execution for the most part was pretty good,” says Underwood.
So far in conference play Illinois has been outscored 293-258 with all Big Ten games so far coming either on the road or on a neutral court. All four of the Illini’s wins this year have come at home, and with their next game being at the State Farm Center (Jan. 10 vs Michigan) perhaps some home cooking will help them turn this thing around. If the season ended today, coach Underwood would have just the second losing season of his Division-I coaching career.
Illinois did however outscore NU in bench points (26-17), points in the paint (42-24), second chance points (12-5), and fast break points (16-8). Those are attributes that they can definitely carry over into the next game. Northwestern on the other hand has now won four of their last six games by a combined score of 430-391. They’re now 8-2 at Welsh-Ryan Arena this season and two of their next four games (starting Jan. 9 vs Iowa) will be on their home court.
“(Illinois) is very hard to play against, everybody knows it. With their pressure defense that takes you out of the game, they take you out of your game offensively and force you to attack and drive to the basket,” said coach Collins.
Both teams don’t meet again until March 3rd in Champaign, they will have played a combined 26 games before that day. Depending on how both teams play between now and then, we could be looking at two totally different teams when they play game No. 177.