Game Notes: Illinois at Northwestern
Northwestern wins in-state battle.
by Quinn Peterson / @QwinFNP
Northwestern-Illinois isn’t necessarily one of college basketball’s premier rivalries, but around local parts, it’s a big deal. And while Saturday’s match-up between the two Illinois universities was at Welsh-Ryan Arena, traveling fans and heavy Illini alumni support turned Northwestern’s home into an almost neutral site. To add to the stakes, both teams were in absolute dire need of a win. The Wildcats entered with a three-game losing streak; Illinois losers of four of its last six, desperately searching for answers.
Point guard Michael Thompson and Northwestern answered the call first, though, beating Illinois 71-70 for the team’s first win over a ranked opponent of this season. After getting rocked by the Illini in Champaign earlier this season, NU said this wasn’t a revenge game, but they certainly played with a purpose.
“We got knocked down pretty hard down in Champaign,” said Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody. “This wasn’t revenge or anything like that, I don’t think that way — I don’t think our guys do. You play 18 games in conference and it’s one of them, but it’s still real, real nice because it is Illinois, and secondly, because of how they handled us down there.”
“It was an embarrassing loss,” said sophomore guard Drew Crawford.
Getting off to their best start of the year, the Wildcats pounced early, jetting out to a 9-2 lead, behind buckets from Crawford and Jershon Cobb. Crawford shook a personal slump as well, putting in 12 first half points to get his rhythm back.
“It’s all just a feel of the game,” said Crawford. “It’s important to come out as a team with high energy, and a lot of times from the get-go we have somebody knocking down shots. Tonight it just happened to be me.”
“They played their hearts out. They got embarrassed at our place and they responded,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said of Northwestern. “We told our guys they would have great energy and they did. Coach Price circled Crawford, said, ‘He had one of his worst games at our place, he’s gonna come back,’ and he got them off to a great start.”
Displaying their usual patience, Northwestern persistently ran their offense, with players in constant motion, eating up a good chunk of the shot clock before looking to get a shot off.
“We play at a slower pace, at a pace at which we’re comfortable with,” said Thompson. “Ohio St. and Illinois, they’re very good in transition, so we wanted to slow then down and try and get some good shots with about 10 seconds left on the shot clock.”
The Illini got a balanced — yet somewhat stagnant — effort that was led by guard Brandon Paul who had 9 in the first half. In Evanston, the game was, in many ways, a homecoming for Paul and Illinois forward Jereme Richmond, from north Chicagoland suburbs of Gurnee and Waukegan, respectively.
Trailing by seven, the Illini held Northwestern scoreless for about four minutes and used a 7-0 run to tie things at 26 late in the first half and get their fans fired up. The neutrality of the court was truly apparent here, as U of I cheers nearly matched those of NU. The Wildcats promptly responded with a 9-3 run of their own, getting their home crowd energized and storming into halftime with a 35-29 lead, taking all of the momentum with them.
Two quick baskets by Cobb put Northwestern in the driver’s seat to start the second half. Though Illinois started to shoot much better, things still did not seem to be clicking on all cylinders. Standout point guard Demetri McCamey appeared out of it, in particular. Saddled for much of the first half with two fouls, his rhythm and sense of urgency were clearly still off early in the second half.
Meanwhile, Northwestern, getting additional contributions from Alex Marcotullio and Luka Mirkovich, took full advantage as their lead ballooned to as many as 12. Coming out of the TV timeout, however, Illinois quickly turned things around, using a 12-0 run to notch things up at 53.
“They put the heat on again and it seemed to bother us,” said Carmody. “They didn’t quit and they kept coming at, and coming at us, and made big plays. I wouldn’t say we were luck, but we were fortunate.”
During this time, McCamey finally woke up, got involved, and started knocking down shots and making plays. His confidence rubbed off on his teammates.
“Demetri did make plays at the end of the game, gave us a chance. Maybe this will get him going, I don’t know. If we’re going to have a good finish, he’s gotta play,” said Weber after the game.
But in a game in which they never lead, the Illini were never able to take full control. Instead, point guard Juice Thompson — who was again huge for the Wildcats — drilled a three to end the Northwestern scoring drought and give them a 56-53 lead with 6:11 to play. Two minutes later, another one! This one put the Wildcats up 61-55. And a minute and half after that — another!
“I thought Juice Michael Thompson was very special. Played like a senior, played very determined, wanted to win at home,” Weber said of the Northwestern captain.
“Illinois went on a 12-0 run and, as a team, I think we did a good job of keeping our composure, staying with our offense and staying aggressive on the defensive end. I was just on the receiving end of some good passes and I hit some shots,” said Thompson.
With 2:18 to go, Northwestern led 64-57, and the two teams traded barbs the rest of the way, 7-9 shooting from the free-throw line during that stretch helped the Wildcats seal the deal.
Three-pointers by Paul and McCamey worked to make things a little more interesting, though, cutting the deficit to three.
Strategic fouling also helped Northwestern avoid any late-game Illinois heroics. Fouling McCamey with 11 seconds, he sunk both of his FT attempts to cut the margin to one. Northwestern forward John Shurna did the same, extending the lead back to three. Fouling McCamey again — before any possible three-point attempt — with seven seconds on the clock, he missed the front-end of the one-and-one.
“That team shoots 41 percent from the three-point range,” said Carmody. “(Bill) Cole, McCamey, (DJ) Richardson. They were gonna hit it. It’s a very good team and they make big plays, so we were gonna make them hit the foul shots.”
Mirkovich split his pair of free throws, but the deed was done. A meaningless Brandon Paul 3 as time expired gave the game’s final score its one-point difference.
Thompson led the way for Northwestern with 22 points, on 5-8 shooting from beyond the arc. Cobb chipped in 13, while Crawford added his 12.
Paul and McCamey were the only Illini in double figures with 21 and 14, respectively.