Illinois found a way to earn a precious road win. The Illini saw an 8 point lead evaporate to a single digit down the stretch, but any road win is special in the rugged Big 10 according to Illini coach Bruce Weber.
"We gutted it out and got a win on the road. Whether it's by one, three, five, it's a win. And that's the most important thing."
Myke Henry, seeing his most extensive action of the season, was at the charity stripe with six seconds to play and the game tied. He made the first of two free throws but missed the second. Northwestern's Drew Crawford drove to the basket. Meyers Leonard came over to block the shot, allowing Illini Nation to breathe again.
Weber has seen similar situations many times before and forewarned Leonard what to expect.
"We knew Crawford would have the ball in his hands, him and (Jon) Shurna," Leonard stated afterward. "I had (JerShon) Cobb, so I came off him a little bit and made a play."
Leonard saved the win, and he added 12 points and 8 rebounds to the effort. But he was far from effective most of the game.
"I struggled the entire game. I got some rebounds and made a couple defensive plays, but I wasn't able to finish around the basket, which is not normal for me."
Weber was disenchanted with his emotional big man first half. When Leonard got a foul within the first two minutes, Weber removed him from the game.
"First half, Meyers gets one foul and says, 'I can't guard anymore.' If you can't guard, you can't play. You've got to learn to play with one foul; you can't stop playing. That's why I took him out.
"Meyers pouted around first half again. He's got to grow up. He can't hang his head. Things can't be perfect; he's got to keep his head up."
Fortunately, the Illini had improving backup Nnanna Egwu available for extensive action. He literally kept them in the game with nine points on 3 for 3 from the field and three straight free throws.
"You've got to give Nnanna a lot of credit in the first half," Weber acknowledged. "We had to put him in the game. We were fortunate Nnanna had the big game for us to keep us in there."
Leonard agreed about his practice sparring partner.
"I was kind of down on myself and wasn't playing well first half, and Nnanna came in and did a great job. He had nine points, key rebounds and played with a lot of energy. I'm so proud of him. He's gonna be a great player."
The way the Illini played first half, one had to wonder if a long season swoon was in the offing. Point guard Sam Maniscalco was scratched with his sore ankle, and the Illini half court offense lacked movement. There was no penetration, minimal cutting and infrequent post touches. Long threes and other forced shots were far too common.
The Illini fell behind 36-26 as Wildcat star Shurna hit seven of 10 shots for 17 points. A couple turnovers allowed Henry time to hit a three and Leonard a dunk to reduce the deficit to 36-31 at halftime.
The Illini came out hot to start the second half. After Reggie Hearn hit a drive, the Illini went on an 11-0 run to give them a lead they would never relinquish. A Brandon Paul drive tied it at 38, and Joe Bertrand hit one of his patented floaters and a drive to provide a cushion.
Bertrand ended with 10 points. He benefitted from some prodding Weber said.
"They were really sagging on Meyers with Joe's man. We kept saying, 'You can't go hide on the court. You've got to show yourself.' And then he took it to the basket for some nice little pull-ups. Joe got 8 rebounds too, and that was another big thing."
A Leonard layin made it 52-45. He later hit two big free throws, and Paul added one of two to extend the lead to 55-47. A couple Wildcat threes and a free throw made it a one point game, setting the table for the Leonard heroics at the end.
The Illini were an uncharacteristic 11 of 20 from the free throw line, several late misses giving NU a chance to catch up. But a strong second half defensive effort reduced Northwestern's shooting percentage to 36.4%. At one point late in the second half, the Wildcats had hit only 3 of 18 shots.
"We did a great job on the defensive end," Weber admitted. "Shurna kicked our butts first half with 17. He had one basket second half."
Shurna and Crawford lead the Big 10 in scoring. Weber took his top two defenders to task during intermission.
"I challenged both D.J. (Richardson) and Brandon at halftime. I said, 'Crawford and Shurna are kicking your butts. Are you gonna be players or not?' They did a much better job."
With Maniscalco out, Paul and Abrams shared point guard duties. Paul ended with ten points, four boards, four assists and two steals. But his six turnovers included several of the unforced variety. And the offense stagnated when he was at the top of the key as he sometimes preferred a difficult three to setting up a teammate for a better shot.
On the other hand, Abrams asserted himself well. He kept Dave Sobolewski, his former backup with the Illinois Wolves AAU team, to zero field goals. Weber bragged about his solid all-around game despite a lack of scoring.
"Tracy had zero points, but he had three assists, no turnovers and five rebounds. Pretty good effort for a freshman on the road."
The only senior on the team is Maniscalco, and this is his first year as an Illini. Juniors Paul, Richardson and Tyler Griffey had lost three straight in Chicago games and two straight at Northwestern prior to this win. Leonard spoke for everyone in celebrating their first victory.
"We finally got one; it feels good. We've got to build on that."