Every good basketball game is unpredictable, especially, with a Big Ten rivalry as good as this one.
The Northwestern Wildcats (14-5, 5-3 B1G) knew they were going to encounter a challenge when they faced off against the Fighting Illini (14-5, 5-3 B1G) on Wednesday night. While it was not an easy task, they managed to secure an unforgettable 96-91 win in an exciting overtime.
“It doesn’t become a true rivalry until we start winning our fair share,” head coach Chris Collins said in a postgame press conference.
Having lost at Nebraska 69-75 on Jan. 20, the ’Cats came into this game hoping to change their misfortune. With Welsh Ryan Arena luck on their side, being 3-0 in conference play when playing at home, their biggest desire was to forget about their loss against Illinois earlier in the season, when a striking 30-point gap saw them leave Champaign defeatedly.
Nevertheless, everything seemed to play out differently this time around.
With a first half that was characterized by a cumulative 41 rebounds between both teams– Illinois tallying 27 and Northwestern 14–no opponent was a clear dominator of the game. The first five minutes came and went with both teams tying 8-8 in a game that began with a couple of missed shots and continuous rebounds on both sides of the court. With back-and-forth play, both teams kept a slim difference in scores.
Northwestern began to trail Illinois when a three-pointer from graduate guard forward Marcus Domask, who scored 22 points for the visitors, made it 32-27 with 1:55 left in the first half. It proved to be a motivation for the Wildcats, who for the final minute and a half led a 7-0 run. Graduate guard Boo Buie put the cherry on top to end this first half, when in the final seconds scored an excellent two-pointer, leading 34-32 into halftime. Buie would go on to score a whopping 29 points and provide seven assists in this game.
The game-tying Buie bucket 👻 pic.twitter.com/ADaK8JwoVR— Northwestern Basketball (@NUMensBball) January 25, 2024
With the second half underway, three-pointers dominated the court left and right. Third-year guard Brooks Barnhizer was a key player in Northwestern’s win, having tallied 12 points in the second half — totaling 23 points — and being two-for-two in three-pointers during the first 10 minutes. Fourth-year center Matthew Nicholson added 12 points to the game, most of them being characterized by his iconic dunking skills.
However, despite their strong offensive effort, not everything ran smoothly for the ’Cats, as one of their biggest nightmares was their lack of prevention to commit fouls, taking Illinois various times to the line. The Fighting Illini made 18 out of 24 attempted free throws throughout the game. And as if the game could not get more dramatic, it was all to be decided in overtime, after both teams tied 76-76 to end the second half.
Overtime proved to not be a problem for Northwestern, starting with three-pointers by Buie and Barnhizer respectively. It was in these golden minutes that Northwestern began to lead by 10 points – first 88-78, followed by 90-80 – , their biggest lead of the night. Although Illinois was awarded a few final free throws before the buzzer, it would not be enough to stop Northwestern from pulling together another incredible win.
This would be the first time that the Wildcats beat a Top-10 Illinois team since 1956. It would surely be a night to remember.
Thumbnail photo by AJ Anderson/North by Northwestern.