It wasn’t pretty, but we'll take it.
In a game marked by rough shooting, surprising plays and a plethora of fouls, Northwestern basketball (10-4, 1-3 B1G) took down their in-state rival Illinois (4-11, 0-4 B1G) 68-66. The win was their first in conference play this season, something the team hopes can give them momentum to win in a difficult conference.
The Wildcats were hot-and-cold during the first half. For the most part, the team struggled to get shots to fall, shooting just 10-for-26 from the field. Most of the team’s points were limited to the paint, with just one three-pointer made out of seven. Northwestern’s leading scorer Vic Law (13 pts, 10 reb, 6 TO) struggled early after a disappointing performance against Michigan State, with just two points before halftime.
However, a streak of brilliance from freshman Ryan Greer gave the ’Cats serious momentum midway through the first. Greer hit a floater and a lay-up in back-to-back possessions, and found Dererk Pardon (10 pts, 8 reb) in the paint to assist on a monster dunk. His brief presence as a point guard on the court gave the team a serious boost, and for his efforts he saw a decent amount of playing time for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, the team repeat the same rhythm later on in the half.
Illinois, despite shooting troubles of their own for much of the game (including not hitting a single three), went on a 15-3 run to close out the first half strong. A variety of players on the Illini roster pitched in points early on, and perfect 9-for-9 free throw shooting helped the team take a 31-25 lead over Northwestern.
For the beginning of the second half, the story was much the same. The Wildcats and the Illini both started off slow offensively. Ryan Taylor scored the only bucket for the ’Cats nearly five minutes into the half. The offense was jammed up again, and it looked like it would be a dreary half.
“[Press defense] definitely wears on you as the game goes on,” A.J. Turner (12 pts, 4 ast) said. “You just have to be laser-focused.”
But things quickly picked up for Northwestern. Turner hit a much-needed 3-pointer to bring some hope back to the Wildcat faithful, and just a short time later Anthony Gaines (11 pts, 4 reb) erased the lead with two-straight trifectas to tie the game with 13:03 left. For the next five minutes, the two teams traded significant amounts of fouls, and the majority of the points came off of free throws.
The lead for either team would never extend beyond three for the rest of the game. Northwestern’s gritty play would be put to the test, however, in the game’s waning moments. Illinois held a 66-65 lead with less than a minute left, and with possession had the chance to make it a two-basket advantage. However, the ’Cats’ defense frustrated the Illini, who couldn’t find a shot they wanted and ended up running out the shot-clock.
From there, a Northwestern team that struggled to score anywhere from the perimeter was given a last-ditch opportunity to sneak out a win. Turner went for a potential game-ending 3-pointer that collided with the front of the rim. Amid traffic, Law got a hand to the ball, and Pardon came up with it to feed Turner one last time. He wouldn’t let the team down.
“Coaches and my teammates have been telling me to be aggressive, so I just let it fly,” Turner said.
After a break in the game, Illinois’ Trent Frazier was given the ball to seal the game’s fate. The Illini’s top scorer, Frazier had a rough game on 2-for-8 shooting, and wasn’t able to give his team the buzzer-beating victory.
After the game, head coach Chris Collins said that the shot-clock violation was “maybe the most critical stop” the Wildcats forced in the last minute of the game. Collins also complimented the energy Greer and Gaines displayed in the first and second halves, respectively.
The team will next take on the Iowa Hawkeyes at Welsh-Ryan on January 9.