With about two-and-a-half hours before Northwestern (13-19, 4-16 B1G) took on Illinois (12-20, 7-13), Coach Chris Collins notified the media that star forward Vic Law would be out for the game – and, after a heartbreaking overtime loss, Northwestern fans can only wonder what-if as the Illini came out on top with a 74-69 victory in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament held at the United Center.
The first half of the contest could only have been watchable to those who revel in airballs and the advantages of a press defense. Both teams began the match 2-7 from the court, as Illinois employed a trap on Northwestern’s primary ballhandlers, which alternated between AJ Turner (20 PTS), Anthony Gaines (5 PTS, 9REB), and Ryan Greer (3 REB). With Law out with a lower body injury suffered against Purdue, the ‘Cats had to shoulder a much larger offensive burden.
Illinois channeled their offense through center Gorgi Bezhanishvili (26 PTS), who finished the first half 7-10 for 16 points down low. On the opposite key, Dererk Pardon (17 PTS, 5 REB) and Barrett Benson found little rhythm down low, while Northwestern’s guards opened the match stone cold. Pardon didn't register a single rebound in the first half while matched up on the Georgian freshman.
Luckily for the ‘Cats, Illinois’ offensive penetration was nonexistent outside of Bezhanishvili; only four other Illini scored in the first half, with none scoring more than five. Star freshman Ayo Dosunmu (8 PTS) went 0-3 with 0 points in the first. Even then, Illinois led 14-11 near the nine minute mark.
Northwestern’s offense ran through Miller Kopp (11 PTS, 7 REB) in the first half, who led the way with nine points off a mix of two’s and three’s, but Northwestern as a whole finished 3-16 from three with a 32.4% true field goal percentage. At half, Illinois led 30-27, but neither team walked into halftime confident based on their first half performance; outside of Bezhanishvili, the rest of the Illini went 5-20.
The start of the second half seemed to be played between two completely different teams. Illinois started 5-8 while Northwestern countered by going 5-7. Turner and Pardon were noticeably more aggressive attacking the basket. Pardon’s post moves got the better of Bezhanishvili, while Turner’s first three of the match tied the game at 32. Both teams then began a fast-paced back and forth, and the ‘Cats took a 45-41 lead.
The Illini roared back with a run of their own, tying the match at 48. Bezhanishvili started the half 4-4 from the field, and he took advantage of the similarly-sized Pardon down low while Dosunmu and Trent Frazier (21 PTS) asserted themselves attacking the rim. With Illinois having taken a 52-51 lead, both teams came up empty on consecutive possessions for almost three minutes before a Frazier one and one. With the clock winding down, neither team could separate from the other. Bezhanishvili stole a pass bound for Pardon and euro-stepped on the fastbreak in a seemingly momentum-shifting play, but Turner drilled a three to close the gap.
With less than a minute left, Andres Feliz (11 PTS, 10 REB) sunk an and-one lay-in, but Turner responded by drawing a foul with 17 seconds left and hitting both free throws. On the last possession of the match, Feliz missed an open lay up off an inbound pass underneath the rim to send the game to overtime.
Illinois escaped in overtime between a six-point sequence in which Frazier hit a three, Dosunwu came back with a block on Gaines next to the basket, and came back to hit a corner three to give Illinois an insurmountable lead. Falzon, Kopp, and Turner couldn’t hit from deep to bring the ‘Cats back in the game, and the Illini took a nailbiting 74-69 win.
This was definitely one of Chris Collins’ most disappointing years in recent memory, especially considering the sky-high expectations placed on the squad after an increasingly distant 2017 season. That said, watching Derek Pardon leave the court with tears in his eyes marks an end of an era for Northwestern, as the last of the NCAA tournament squad departs Evanston with a first round Big Ten tournament loss after winning only four Big Ten matches. Although it was not the departure anybody within the program could have expected, it’s a reality the ‘Cats will have to face as they enter an uncertain offseason searching for new faces, new leaders and a new identity.