Perhaps Northwestern wanted to defend its status as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.” Maybe the team felt it was time to give head coach Chris Collins his first Big Ten win. Either way, the Wildcats delivered their best performance of the season on Sunday night, as they defeated No. 23 Illinois 49-43 at Welsh-Ryan behind JerShon Cobb’s 11 points and four assists.
“I’m so excited for the guys and how hard we worked,“ Collins said. “I really don’t want this to be about me, because I wasn’t the guy out there, they were. I really want to celebrate for my guys because I know how much they’ve been through.”
In an interstate series that has been dominated by the Illini, the ‘Cats came to play, especially on the defensive end. They managed to hold Rayvonte Rice, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, in check.
Rice, the redshirt junior guard who transferred from Drake University, is just one of four Big Ten players in the top 15 in both points and rebounds. On Sunday night though, he finished with just five points on 2-for-11 shooting.
Illini head coach John Grace, who believed his team played “anemic” on the offensive end due to a lack of confidence and tentative play, did give some credit to Northwestern though.
“I thought they played really well on the defensive end and made it very difficult to score,” Grace said.
With eight minutes to go in the first half, the ‘Cats led 14-8, getting key contributions from Cobb, Tre Demps and Drew Crawford. Then five straight points from Alex Olah, including a clutch three, gave the ‘Cats a 19-12 lead with three minutes to go.
This is a completely different Olah then the one who looked lost at times during Big Ten play last year as a freshman. On Sunday night he took smarter shots and didn’t turn the ball over once.
“He was the unsung hero,” Collins said about Olah’s performance. “I thought his defense tonight wasn’t good, Alex’s defense was tremendous.”
Meanwhile the Illini couldn’t buy a bucket. To call it a “cold spell” would be an understatement, as they headed into halftime shooting an abysmal 19 percent from the field, while missing all eight of their shots from behind the arc. It was their worst offensive half, statistically, of the year.
The 22-15 score at the half, was the ‘Cats biggest halftime lead since they were up 44-34 against Mississippi Valley State on Dec. 16. While they shot 33 percent in the first 20 minutes, it was enough to give them a seven-point cushion.
With 16 minutes to go in the game, the Illini were still looking for answers, when junior guard Tracy Abrams, who led the Illini with 13 points, ended their dry spell with a layup. It was their first field goal since 1:58 to go in the first half, and was soon followed by a fancy alley-oop pass from Joseph Bertrand to Jon Ekey, forcing the ‘Cats to call a time out.
In a matter of seconds after the timeout, the Illini had tied up the game at 27 behind a pair of big threes and a fast break lay-up.
Like so many Northwestern games in the past, the ‘Cats had blown a big lead. The only question was: how would they respond against their rival in this particular game? A five-point spurt of their own certainly did the trick.
This is what Big Ten basketball is all about, and might be what the ‘Cats needed to turn their season around.
“It was huge,” Collins said about the team’s response to the 8-0 run by the Illini. “We’ve been playing really well, we’ve been handing with teams, and then when they turn the heat up on us we kind of folded…we responded right away, and I thought it showed a lot about our guys.”
In the last five minutes this looked like it was going to be a typical ‘Cats nail-biter that ends in a loss. Except this one didn’t, thanks to the late-game performance by Demps, who made three shots from the behind the arc in the waning minutes to help the ‘Cats prevail.
“In the second half it [the hoop] looked pretty big,” Demps said.
The ‘Cats next game is at home against No. 5 Michigan State on Wednesday.