After initially appearing to coast to victory, Northwestern (17-6, 7-5 BIG) narrowly fended off a late-game surge by Illinois (12-12, 3-9 BIG) on Saturday afternoon to earn its third straight win, 64-58.
The 'Cats saw a 15-point lead evaporate when Illinois' Chatrice White stole Maggie Lyon’s inbound pass and Jacqui Grant drilled a layup with 3:14 left to play in the game. But Ashley Deary drilled a three-pointer 28 seconds later, and – as she drove through Illinois’ full-court press – followed it with six free throws in a span of 45 seconds to hand Northwestern a season sweep of the Fighting Illini.
“We got reckless with the basketball in the last three or four minutes, so I was really disappointed with that,” said head coach Joe McKeown. “But I was just proud of the fight and the effort. The way Deary played at the end was incredible.”
McKeown’s balanced approach, the essence of the only Big Ten team with six players averaging nine or more points per game, was put to its most rigid test Saturday. Christen Inman sat out with an injury, the first time all season the Wildcats played without the same 22 starters. But Karly Roser stepped in to grab four pivotal offensive rebounds and Lauren Douglas delivered nine points off the bench.
“They’re doing a great job,” McKeown said. "Nof [Kedem] came in and helped us in the second half. We’re going to need production from everybody.”
That production was sparse early. Northwestern fell behind 15-10 in the game’s first nine minutes. The Wildcats struggled to gain penetration while the Illini sunk shot after shot from behind the arc.
But with 10:10 to play, Alex Cohen fired a pass to a cutting Lauren Douglas. The junior forward delivered an “and-1” layup, then sunk the free throw. That kicked off a 10-3 run headlined by a Lyon three-pointer and another Cohen-to-Douglas combo. Northwestern led 31-27 at half.
Nia Coffey opened the second period with a three, the start of a 19-4 run over the first five minutes of the half that gave the 'Cats a 46-31 lead. Coffey finished with 14 points and 11 boards, her third consecutive double-double.
Then the game began to turn, as the Illini struck back immediately. The Wildcats weren’t weak on the perimeter, as they were in the first half. Instead, Northwestern struggled to stand beneath Illinois’ full-court press. They committed nine turnovers in the second half after giving up the ball just five times in the first period.
With 7:20 left to play, a turnover by Ashley Deary led to an Illinois layup, putting the score at 51-46. Another steal – again off a Deary turnover – promptly resulted in a three from Illinois’ Kyley Simmons. Illinois tied it 55-55 with 2:46 left to play.
But Deary atoned quickly. The 5’4 sophomore point guard scored nine points in under three minutes and Northwestern edged out a rocky victory.
The Wildcats won’t have much time to celebrate. They hit the road to play Purdue Wednesday night.