You can call it a process. You can call it a learning experience. Heck, you could even call it a season of growth.
But that won’t make Northwestern’s 72-67 loss to Illinois on Wednesday night in Evanston any less painful. The ‘Cats dropped a back and forth affair to their in-state rivals, battling back in a contest that was anybody’s game down the stretch.
“It’s life in the Big Ten,” head coach Chris Collins said. “You play tough, hard-fought games and they come down to a possession here and a possession there. It was a one-point game with four seconds to go.”
Played before a healthy contingent of traveling Illini fans, the game had a postseason atmosphere that’s been sorely missing at Welsh-Ryan recently. The Northwestern student section was also out in force, and they did their part to keep the crowd noise in the ‘Cats corner throughout the game.
Against Illinois, Northwestern avoided the kind of slow start that’s doomed them in many of their losses this season, keeping the game close in the early going. But Illinois’ size and three-point shooting wore the ‘Cats down, as the Illini stretched their lead to double digits late in the first half.
It was up to Bryant McIntosh and Alex Olah to lead the ‘Cats back, and both players helped Northwestern rally and close the gap to four points by halftime.
Early in the second half, Northwestern’s offense withered against an Illinois team that forced them to settle for contested jumpers and win the game from beyond the arc. That’s not something this team is equipped to do, but with Illinois packing the paint and shutting down potential scoring lanes, the ‘Cats needed someone to step up.
Enter, Dave Sobolewski.
The senior point guard, who’s seen limited minutes this season, hit two massive three-pointers to keep Northwestern in the game late. Sobolewski’s teammates (and the Welsh-Ryan crowd) rallied around him, and the ‘Cats began to mount a comeback.
“When he’s playing well. I’m going to go to him,” Collins said of Sobolewski. “I thought for a little bit in the second half, Bryant [McIntosh] got a little sped up and I thought Dave playing with him kind of calmed Bryant down and then he really played well down the stretch.”
Down by five with only a minute left, Olah toed the three-point line with no Illini defenders in the same zip code. Receiving a pass, he launched a shot that seemed to hang in the air for “centuries” (I’m sorry, but that song is everywhere) before rimming in and out of the basket. It would’ve been almost too perfect.
“I don’t know if that was a ghost or [what],” Olah said. “But it just wasn’t meant to be. I was pretty sad but you’ve got to keep going.”
The Illini were able to nurse the clock from there and hang on to win 72-67. It’s another tough loss for Northwestern, who will head to Ann Arbor on Sunday and take on Michigan at the Crisler Center.
The loss was the ‘Cats second straight tough defeat, after they dropped a heartbreaker to Michigan State in overtime on Sunday. Though there are positives to be gleamed from these narrow results, they aren’t enough to satisfy Collins.
“It’s not about coming close,” Collins said. “It wasn’t about coming against Michigan State. It’s not about coming close against Illinois. It’s about finding ways to win.”