Packed near the top of Welsh-Ryan Arena, the raucous Illinois student section began the usual refrain: “Our State, Our Team.”
As the clock ran down, the remaining Northwestern fans stood silently, many with their arms crossed. Bragging rights were gone, and their team hardly put up a fight.
On Sunday, the broken down Wildcats finally fell apart. The final score read 62-41 but the game was much worse. Beginning at the 2:55 mark in the first half, holding a slim four-point lead, the Illini scored 26 unanswered points.
“We didn’t execute,” senior Reggie Hearn said. “It was all-around not a good game for us.”
On Jan. 17, NU knocked Illinois off in Champaign. Tonight, and in recent games, the opponent looked like a completely different team.
With newfound defensive intensity, the Illini have won four consecutive games. Once on the wrong side of the bubble, they now project to be an NCAA Tournament threat.
“They’ve been on a roll,” coach Bill Carmody said. “They’re very confident.”
This marked an emotional letdown for NU. Senior Alex Marcotullio said the overall performance was “a little lackadaisical.” On Thursday, the Cats challenged No. 13 Ohio State. Despite the staggering number of injuries, they made enough shots to compete.
But tonight, NU had more turnovers than it did field goals. Only two players made shots in the entire first half. The overall numbers: 25 percent shooting, 19 percent from three. Even those statistics were inflated by a late flurry of made baskets.
“If you get open shots, you need to knock them down,” Marcotullio said. “That’s how we’re going to hang in games. That’s how we’re going to win games."
Illinois was helped by strong individual performances. D.J. Richardson scored 18 points and had eight rebounds — both game-highs. Tracy Abrams sparked the Illini with 13 points on 5-of-8 shooting. But to coach John Groce, the key to beating NU was solid defense. Leading scorer Brandon Paul tallied just eight points. Still, Groce said it was one of his best games of the season.
“It was as good as he’s defended all year long,” Groce said. “He was communicating. He was locked in and had a really good all-around game.”
When Illinois seized an early 19-9 advantage, the Cats clamped down on defense. They held their opponent scoreless for more than four minutes, cutting the lead to 19-15. Then Richardson began the memorable run.
He knocked down a shot to end the drought. And after a pair of free throws from Sam McLaurin and a triple from Abrams, he drained a corner three to end the first half. Just like that, the lead was back to 14.
In the first six minutes of the second half, the Cats went scoreless. They turned the ball over three times and missed eight field goal attempts before the run ended.
“We got carved up a little in game one,” Groce said. “Guys took a little bit of pride in wanting to defend better.”
James Montgomery III, of all players, hit a layup to stop the bleeding. There were more than 13 minutes left. The outcome had long been decided.
Exactly one month since the first matchup, the teams continue to head in different directions.
On Sunday, NU could not compensate for its lack of depth. Hearn went 3-for-11. Dave Sobolewski went 0-for-6. It had to be frustrating.
The injuries caught up to them in the long run.
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