Illinois came from fourteen behind to defeat Northwestern 60-59 on Thursday night. The deciding basket came on a jumper by Illini sophomore Demetri McCamey with 2.9 seconds left.
With just over six minutes to play it appeared the game was going to be a special one for the Wildcats. They led 55-41 and had dominated Illinois from the opening tip off. The student section filled up a good half hour before game time and was the loudest its been in at least the last five years. Northwestern seemed destined to secure a win over its in-state rival that would propel the team back into contention for a birth in the NCAA tournament.
But then Northwestern just ran out of gas. The visibly tired ‘Cats had trouble in-bounding the ball and scored just two points in the final five minutes of play. A three-pointer by Trent Meacham cut Northwestern’s lead to three with just over a minute to play and then Meacham added a layup to make the score 59-58 Northwestern with 45 seconds left. On the ensuing possession ‘Cats sophomore Michael Thompson attempted a difficult lay up but had the ball stripped away by Meacham. McCamey then nailed a jumper to give the Illini the lead. Senior Craig Moore heaved a desperation shot as the buzzer sounded but the ball fell well short of the basket. The orange-clad Illinois cheering section exploded in celebration while Northwestern fans exited in complete disbelief, tournament dreams crushed.
Freshman Luka Mirkovic and junior Kevin Coble were the ‘Cats leading scorers with fourteen points apiece. Northwestern fell to 4-7 in the Big Ten and 13-9 overall
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody will have to answer questions about how he used the team’s bench. Moore, Coble, Mirkovic and Thompson all played at least 35 minutes and spent much of the closing minutes of the game with their hands on their knees. At the end of the game, the ‘Cats wilted under the Illini pressure defense and lost all of the aggressiveness that had made them so successful earlier in the game. The Illini, in contrast, strengthened as the game wore long and seemed confidant that they were going to win.
The collapse Thursday night is the latest among a number of poor late second half showings by NU. In an earlier game in Evanston against Purdue, NU also blew a second half 14-point lead en route to a 63-61 loss.
The Illini victory was their tenth straight against the Wildcats. Illinois is now 20-5 overall, 8-4 in conference play, and should be in good position to secure a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Northwestern will have a few days to recoup before playing Sunday against the Michigan Wolverines at Welsh-Ryan. In an earlier game in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines defeated the Wildcats 68-59.