With five seconds left in the game and their team trailing only two points after an 11-4 run in the last four minutes, Northwestern fans were likely already proud of their team’s resilience in an absolute battle against a red-hot Illinois team in Champaign, no matter the result.
Illinois (No. 24 in the AP Poll) was ranked for the first time since 2012. Their home court, State Farm Center, was loud throughout the game. Northwestern went into the game with the worst record in a chaotic, yet as competitive as ever, Big Ten Conference. Star first-year Boo Buie, who made a statement when the last time Northwestern against a ranked team with Michigan State, was still kept on the sideline by injury.
None of that mattered. Robbie Beran (17 pts, 5 reb) led the way. Guard Pat Spencer (14 pts, 5 ast) stepped up in the second half. Miller Kopp (16 pts) continued to score in the double digits, as he has in recent games. Northwestern (6-11, 1-6 Big Ten) played exciting basketball for 40 minutes but unfortunately came up short 75-71 against the Illinois Fighting Illini (13-5, 5-2 Big Ten).
The matchup between Northwestern and Illinois has always been exciting. Entering this game, the previous four games between the pair of rivals were decided by a combined 16 points. Saturday’s game quickly headed into a tight fight as well, despite what the difference in their season records may have suggested.
The Wildcats executed on both ends of the floor. Pat Spencer’s ability to organize on offense ensured the continued production of a young Northwestern crew that’s been prone to scoring droughts this season. Beran and Kopp were prolific, each leading the team with nine points in the first half. Despite only making three 3-pointers in the half, the Wildcats kept themselves in the game by attacking the rim. By halftime, Northwestern had more points (16-12) in the paint than the Illini, whose four-star big man Kofi Cockburn is one of the most talented freshmen in the conference.
Defensively, coach Chris Collins’ zone worked well for the most part. Illinois was forced to take a few bad shots beyond the arc, and struggled to give the ball to their top two scorers, Ayo Dosunmu and Cockburn. The duo who have combined for about 30 points per game this season only scored eight points heading into the locker room. Other players stepped up for the Fighting Illini. Center Giorgi Bezhanishvili knocked down a few key mid-range jumpers as his team tried to find its direction against the zone. Guard Trent Frazier, who reached the 1,000 point career milestone with a 3-pointer right before the half, contributed 11 of the 38 first-half points by Illinois.
The ’Cats carried their momentum well into the second half. Beran came out hot, knocking down back-to-back two triples to prevent Illinois from pulling away. Spencer then took over, using his lacrosse physique to create shots. Even Jared Jones hit an off-the-dribble jumper. Northwestern simply refused to hand the game over no matter how many times the announcers thought Illinois was going to pull away.
In the second half, Illinois was starting to figure out the zone defense. They passed the ball more patiently and waited for their star players to get hot. Five players eventually reached double figures for the Illini, and they continued to make key defensive plays in the most crucial moments. But the Wildcats did everything they could to resist. Every rebound was a team effort, even though no one could really match Cockburn’s size and explosiveness. They outscored Illinois 11-3 in the second half on second chance points.
Missing key offensive talents like Buie and Anthony Gaines due to injury, Northwestern didn’t have enough weapons to take the lead back. But they came really close.
A.J. Turner and Kopp’s tough threes in the last minute cut the nine point deficit to two with six seconds to go. Unfortunately, Illinois’ top scorer Dosunmu demonstrated his star power at the end of the game, hitting two key free throws to seal the win.
This loss was the seventh in the last eight games for the ’Cats, five of which were determined by a margin of less than five points. However, this game told a slightly different story. Unlike the other games, the ’Cats never had a lead in the second half, but their offense refused to quit against a much tougher opponent. Beran, whose game-high 17 points Saturday was also a career high, is giving Evanston hope with his adjustment to the college game. If the ’Cats keep their spirits high and continue to play at the level they did against Illinois, they could be a threat to any opponent as they head deep into the conference schedule.
Northwestern will face Maryland at home on Tuesday.