Chase Audige goes for the tough basket during Northwestern's Jan. 7 loss to Illinois. While Audige led all scorers during the two teams' Feb. 16 matchup with 22 points, the 'Cats fell short in their effort to knock of the fifth-best team in the nation. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

For many, a dozen is somewhat of a perfect number. It’s the perfect amount for groups of food, like eggs or donuts, it’s the amount of numbers on a clock, and thanks to one Julius Caesar, it’s the amount of months in a single year. It’s a great, round number that allows one to find themselves, adjust appropriately, and find a way to shape the number for the better.

Unless you’re Northwestern men’s basketball (6-13, 3-12 B1G) and you lose 12 straight games. Then it’s not such a great number.

Number discussion aside, the ’Cats suffered the dozen-making loss to No. 5 Illinois on Tuesday, losing 73-66 in a game that showed just how close Northwestern is to turning the corner. While the ’Cats got off to a slow start, losing to the Illini 25-7 after just ten minutes, the squad was able to slowly claw their way back into the game, taking the deficit to just two points with 90 seconds to play. It wasn’t enough, unfortunately, as Illinois junior guard Ayo Dosunmu pulled his team to victory with two clutch three-pointers, including the dagger:

“It was a really hard fought game tonight, I thought both teams played very hard,” Collins said. “I think our guys are showing a lot, it's definitely been a tough stretch… so for us to continue to fight, continue to stay at it, putting ourselves in position, we keep knocking on the door, and we keep coming up a little short, and that's frustrating for everybody. I'm proud of the guys for sticking with it, and I'm really confident it's going to turn.”

In addition to Dosunmu’s heroics, Illinois was led by the continuing dominance of sophomore center Kofi Cockburn, who notched his 14th double-double of the season with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Dosunmu was second on his team with 13 points, while also dishing five assists and grabbing two rebounds.

On the other side, however, was the continuing emergence of sophomore guard Chase Audige, who led all scorers with 22 points on 9-for-21 shooting, including three downtown shots. Junior forward Pete Nance also turned in a nice night, with 14 points and six rebounds; Nance also paced the ’Cats during their critical comeback, including a jumper to bring them within one:

As previously mentioned, the game did not exactly begin in Northwestern’s favor. Illinois came out of the starting gate sprinting, scoring 17 points over the first four minutes alone, and holding a 25-7 lead with ten minutes left in the first half. While the ’Cats began to taper down on defense, they just could not get their offense going; while they scored 26 points in the first, they had an astounding zero assists on buckets, and went 0-for-10 from downtown. With 20 minutes to play, Illinois led 38-26.

“I just thought to start the game, we were on our heels a little bit,” Collins said postgame. “I don't want to diminish Illinois, they're terrific, and they put a lot of pressure on you, but… I thought we were fumbling the ball a little bit, I thought they turned us over. We weren't really able to play the way we had prepared to play on either end… and then I thought the rest of the game, that's more who we need to be.”

Unlike their last matchup, however, the ’Cats refused to surrender to Illinois, and began to bring themselves back into the game. With great three-balls from Nance, Audige and junior guard Anthony Gaines, Northwestern found their shot again and began to go toe-to-toe with Illinois.

“We got a little bit tougher,” Collins said. “We were sticking our nose in there, we were more active, we were more engaged defensively. It's funny how when you do that, it seems like you're gonna play better on offense. I always tell the guys when you throw yourself into doing dirty work, in screening and rebounding and loose balls and things like that, then your talent on offense will take over.”

Illinois continued to shoot well, however, and Northwestern continued to have to grind for points. Nance and Audige paced the ’Cats through the gritty play, and began to pick up key possessions and show real fight, trading buckets and fouls throughout. With 150 seconds left, Audige went on a run of four straight puns to bring the ’Cats to within one possession, one key bucket away from matching the fifth-best team in the country.

As we mentioned, however, Dosunmu was ready for Illinois, and came up clutch with two downtown shots. The ice in the junior’s veins proved to be the dagger for Northwestern, and the ’Cats dropped their twelfth straight, 73-66.

“You just have to try to take away what they want to do, you know, and I thought we did a pretty good job,” Collins said on Dosunmu’s play. “Basketball is an imperfect game, so what you try to do is limit your mistakes as much as possible…. I thought our game plan was pretty sound… you're not gonna hold them down, they're a tough team to defend, but again, we didn't really let Ayo or Kofi just dominate us, and for the most part did a pretty good job on their other guys.”

So what went wrong this time? The inability to play a complete game. While Northwestern played a fantastic second-half and was almost able to complete the comeback, it remains almost impossible to win games after losing by 18 early; what’s more, the less-than-optimal offensive performance in the first (zero assists, 0-for-10 three-pointers) is not a good trend at any point in the game, especially to a team ranked fifth in the nation.

There is something to be said, however, about the ability of Illinois to play to their strengths. Sophomore center Kofi Cockburn is one of the best players in the nation, and several Northwestern players had their hands full containing him: ’Cats junior forward Robbie Beran fouled out early in the game trying to defend the 7-footer, giving the Illini plenty of room to drive in the paint, and kick out to the perimeter for great shooting.

The main takeaway to form is that Northwestern, despite losing twelve straight games, is extremely close to turning the corner. When a team comes back from 18 down, and nearly matches the fifth-best team in the nation, that’s not failure; at least, not completely. Just a work in process.

Let’s hope the corner gets turned soon, or else we’ll have a soliloquy on the number 13.

Looking ahead already. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics