Northwestern 58, Illinois 56
EVANSTON, Ill. - Illinois coach John Groce has asked Malcolm Hill to do everything this season. On Saturday, the do-everything junior guard took over point guard duties and he did it better than any Illini point guard this season, dishing out a career-high eight assists and pulling down a career-high 13 rebounds on Saturday at Northwestern.
But it wasn't enough because Hill couldn't make the overtime-forcing or game-winning play.
Illinois had the chance to tie the game on the final possession but Hill -- who had hit a shot with 2.7 seconds left but it was called off due to a Northwestern foul on the floor -- slipped and threw the ball away, never getting a shot off as the Illini fell 58-56 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Heavy is the burden on the Illini's star this season.
Meanwhile, if Tre Demps (18 points) and Scottie Lindsey (18 points) were characters in the classic Sega Genesis game "NBA Jam," a flame would have trailed the ball on their three-point attempts as both carried Northwestern (17-9, 5-8 Big Ten) to victory.
Demps, a senior, saved his best game against Illinois for possibly his last one, hitting four straight three-pointers in the second half and scoring a significant layup in the final minute. Lindsey carried the Northwestern offense early, hitting 4 of 7 threes, off the bench.
Kendrick Nunn led the Illini (11-14, 3-9 Big Ten), who led 23-21 at half, with 13 points (3-for-7 three), while freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands continued his hot shooting from beyond the arc with 12 points (4-for-9 three). Junior center Maverick Morgan added 12 points and seven rebounds.
Hill finished as a single-digit scorer (seven points) for the first time this season.
Freshman D.J. Williams (6 points) played a career high 20 minutes and made two 3-pointers, the first two of his career.
Illinois led for 19:46 of the game, compared to 15:47 for Northwestern.
Illinois out-rebounded Northwestern 40-31 and had one fewer turnover (12 to 11). The Illini shot 36.3 percent for the game, including 28.6 percent in the first half. Northwestern shot 42.3 percent for the game.
What it means
Illinois is now looking up at Northwestern in the Big Ten. Northwestern coach Chris Collins' program's trajectory is still heading up, even though it likely won't make an NCAA Tournament. Groce's program is becoming less and less relevant. The Illini, who barring a surprise finish to the season seemed destined to play on Wednesday in the Big Ten Tournament (in the 11-14 or 12-13 games), lost another winnable game due to poor execution.
What went right
Three players continue to emerge for Illinois. Morgan is turning into a solid Big Ten post player. He has 70 points over his last six games and 42 over his last three games. He is showing confidence on offense and a little more toughness on the glass, fighting off Olah for a few putbacks. Coleman-Lands continues to prove himself as an elite shooter. He has 14 made threes over the last three games. Williams keeps earning more and more minutes. The freshman is bringing energy and confidence, and no surprise, his production has taken off. And apparently, he can shoot a little bit? Williams stepped into his two threes with confidence, despite going 0-for-5 in his first 19 games.
Illinois battled on the boards. At one point, they trailed Northwestern 14-7 on the glass but ended up dominating the overall battle of the boards for just the second time during conference season.
What went wrong
Hill was phenomenal in every aspect but couldn't score. He shot 2-for-8 from the field and only got four free-throw attempts. Despite hitting a few big shots late, Nunn still isn't himself. Is it the hip injury? Is it the infant son? The short-handed Illini just can't afford that little point production from its two stars. More often than not, they'll need 40 combined points from Hill and Nunn to win in the Big Ten.
Groce played Hill more at point guard but early in the game, he played offensively-challenged walk-on Alex Austin with Hill. He stopped that bad habit after the first 10 or 15 minutes, but if Groce is going to use Hill at the point guard, get the most out of it by playing five players who can score.
The Illini offense had little rhyme, reason or rhythm to it. The Illini need an actual point guard, of course. But the Illini don't have much purpose or continuity in what they're trying to accomplish. And too many players are forcing bad shots early in the shot clock without ball movement.
Michael Finke (1-for-2, three points and four rebounds) continues to struggle during Big Ten play. While the knee contusion sidetracked him, he hasn't been the same player offensively during conference play due to the length, strength and scouting of the Big Ten. His defense also continues to be exploited.
Illinois struggled to find Northwestern shooters, allowing Lindsley to go off early and Demps to go off late. This is just a lack of recognition during the game and a lack of comprehension of the scouting report before it.
Star of the game
Tre Demps: Illinois led 46-42 in the second half, but Demps' three-point barrage gave the Wildcats control of the game -- which it never relented.
Illinois returns home for its most winnable game of the Big Ten schedule: an 8 p.m. Tuesday tipoff vs. Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights (6-19, 0-12 Big Ten) are the worst team in the Big Ten (284th of 351 Division I teams in the KenPom rankings), though Minnesota is winless in the conference as well. Of course, Illinois needed triple overtime (110-101) in Piscataway to put away the Scarlet Knights, who subsequently lost to Nebraska 87-63 and Ohio State 79-69. Rutgers and Minnesota both could potentially be 0-14 in conference play for a Feb. 23 matchup. With a home game and more talent, Illinois needs to keep that dream of a "Toilet Bowl" alive.