The anti-Bruce Weber crowd will have a field day after Northwestern beat Illinois in the Assembly Hall, its first win here after nine straight losses. But Brandon Paul refused to let his coach take the blame.
"I think the coaches got us well prepared for the game. Coach will try to take the blame, but this one was on me, Meyers (Leonard), D.J. (Richardson), Joe (Bertrand), Tracy (Abrams) and Sam (Maniscalco). We didn't come out and guard. We beat Michigan State because we guarded. We came out here and let them do what they wanted.
"We had too many mental mistakes on defense. That's why we lost the game. We won the last couple of games because we guarded. We didn't guard as well this game."
Paul took personal responsibility for NU star John Shurna's 24 points.
"I didn't do my job as a defensive stopper. He got a lot of shots. Some were mental mistakes on my part, and some were communication problems with the guys on the court. Our coaches had us prepared for it, but we didn't do what we needed to do to win the game."
Weber was distraught and humbled afterward.
"It would be an understatement to say it's a disappointing loss. Not to discredit them, they played their butts off and shot the ball so well. I thought the last couple of games, we did what we needed to do, playing hard as far as defending. Taking some pride in that. It wasn't the case tonight."
Illinois shot well for a change. But winners shoot and defend simultaneously. It seems the Illini are either-or in that regard.
"We shot 54%, 46% from three, so we outscored them in that part," Weber reminded. "We just gave them too many points in the paint. Too many layups, too many breakdowns. One thing we've done over the years well is guard them. But it was their day today, they made shots."
Northwestern played a small lineup with Shurna at center. It was a golden opportunity for the Illini to grab an early lead and maybe get the Wildcat star in foul trouble guarding Leonard. Despite constant direction from Weber to get the ball into the post, it arrived there only occasionally. The Wildcats had a 5-1 lead before Leonard saw the ball.
With Paul defending Shurna, Leonard ended up guarding 6'-4" Reggie Hearn. That didn't work well as the Wildcats maintained their lead the entire first half. Every time the Illini closed the gap, the Wildcats responded. Hearn was a thorn in the Illini side all game, hitting 4 of 5 threes and scoring 20 points. As Weber explains, early success breeds confidence.
"They always had us on our heels, and they made shots. They always seemed to be a step ahead of us at making the right cut, the right play. Hearn got going, and that got them off to a good start. Now they're feeling good about themselves.
"To their credit, taking a chance of playing Shurna at the five, Hearn hurt us early. He has the game of his lifetime, and sometimes that's what it takes to win on the road."
The Illini finally took their first lead 39-38 early in the second half, but the offense suddenly stagnated. Instead of pulling away, the Illini gave Northwestern multiple chances to stay in the game.
"I thought the key to the game, it was a one-point game in the second half," Weber remembered. "We had kind of got a little momentum. We had the ball four or five times, but we took a couple of tough shots. We didn't get it inside.
"With a little more patience, now maybe you get a knockout punch. Then Shurna hits a three, now he gets and an-one three. He gets confidence and was tough after that."
It is often true the team with momentum early in the game also has it late, and that is exactly what happened Sunday. It was tied 56-56 when the Wildcats took the lead for good. Drew Crawford hit a layin and Shurna a jumper to dim Illini hopes.
Spreading the floor with the lead late in the game, the Wildcats were able to get some backdoor cuts and other open shots. They ended up hitting 13 of their last 17 shots from the field. Illinois had no answer for the barrage.
Paul and Leonard ended with 22 and 21 points respectively. Paul hit 6 of 11 shots from the field and dished out 4 assists with only one turnover. But his stats were padded by two threes when the game was no longer in doubt. Leonard also grabbed 9 boards, but less athletic Northwestern outrebounded the Illini by two.
Bertrand added 9 points and Abrams 6 as only six Illini saw major minutes. Circumstance was the main reason, but Weber based his substitution patterns in part on what he saw during practice preparations for NU's Princeton-style offense.
"It just happened; we got behind. I'll be honest, in practice the young guys couldn't guard us running their stuff. So you are a little leery. They didn't sub either. In hindsight, use your bench, get energy going and see what happens."
Weber has coached enough games to recognize when his team is behind the 8-ball. He felt that throughout Sunday and now has to hope destiny balances soon.
"You got that feeling during the game, even in the first half, we'd tie it, cut it to one, we just couldn't get a string of shutouts or make the right play. We didn't turn it over too much, but it always seemed to be inappropriate times when we turned it over.
"It was just one of those games. We've got to stay together and see if we can steal a game on the road. Maybe have somebody step up and make shots like they had Hearn do."
The Illini still lack needed leadership, but Paul is beginning to understand the role. At least, he spoke for the whole team when stating clearly they will not give up on themselves despite a tough remaining schedule.
"We've got to keep believing. We can't get down on ourselves or hang our heads low. Four of the next five are away, so we've got to go out and steal some wins we're not supposed to. And we've got to play hard.
"There's nothing we can do about this game, we can't look back on it. We have to go watch film so we can learn and get better. We still believe we can be a good team."