Illinois 68, Northwestern 61
EVANSTON, Ill. - Tuesday's trip to Northwestern was a measure of Illinois basketball's pride.
Apparently, the Illini aren't on empty yet.
After losing six of seven and with speculation that its head coach could be on his last legs, Illinois (14-11, 4-8 Big Ten) snapped a nine-game Big Ten road losing streak and gave Northwestern its worst loss on an otherwise solid NCAA Tournament resume.
Malcolm Hill went scoreless in the first half, but gave Illinois a huge boost in the second half, finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds to lead the Illini to their first road win since its triple-overtime victory at Rutgers on Feb. 3, 2016 -- more than a year ago.
Northwestern (18-6, 7-4 Big Ten) struggled offensively (33.9 percent shooting, including 6-for-20 from three) with leading scorer Scottie Lindsey sidelined for his second straight game due to illness. Big efforts from junior Bryant McIntosh (21 points on 8-for-20 FG) and sophomore Vic Law (16 points on 5-for-14 FG) weren't enough for the 'Cats.
The Illini and Wildcats then traded runs throughout most of the game.
The game started like the Illini's first five road games. Illinois missed its first five shots and trailed 10-4 at the 14:06 mark.But this time, the Illini responded with a 15-0 run during which it shot 6-for-8 from the field and held the Wildcats scoreless for five minutes and 40 seconds.
However, the Illini then went on a 4:49 scoreless drought of their own -- thanks to five straight missed shots and three turnovers -- allowing Northwestern to go on a 7-0 run and closed the gap to 21-19. Illinois climbed back to a 27-21 lead, but the Wildcats then went on an 11-1 run (in which the Illini went 4:29 without a field goal) to take a 32-28 lead early in the second half.
But Illinois eventually responded with its own 9-0 run to claim a 44-39 lead with 13:32 remaining. Illinois held Northwestern to just one field goal over the final five minutes of the game.
In Game 25, John Groce used his seventh starting lineup combination of the season. Aaron Jordan made his second start of the season -- the first was the season opener -- with Jalen Coleman-Lands coming off the bench for the second time in three games.
What it means
The Illini played spoiler for the Wildcats' NCAA Tournament bid. While Northwestern still has a strong resume, the schedule ahead is tough: at Wisconsin, vs. Maryland, vs. Rutgers, at Illinois, at Indiana, vs. Michigan and vs. Purdue. Chris Collins' crew still needs two or three wins to feel confident heading into the NCAA Tournament, though the bubble is weak.
Otherwise, this doesn't mean much for Illinois unless its the start of a crazy run to end the season. Like "win out" crazy run. The path isn't that treacherous -- vs. Penn State, at Iowa, vs. Northwestern, at Nebraska, vs. Michigan State and at Rutgers -- but the Illini we saw through 24 games couldn't pull that off. A loss, however, would've put another nail in John Groce's coffin. This win at least keeps him on life support.
What went right
Lucas and Nichols continue to be bright spots for fans looking for hope in the future. Lucas' ceiling might not be as high as some of the point guards who got away, but he makes his teammates better and is an actual threat to score. Nichols adds much-needed athleticism and toughness, and his jumper has been on point so far.
The Illinois offense moved better than usual, and the Illini made shots this time around. The two are not coincidental. The Illini assisted on 18 of 24 field goals and shot 8-for-19 from three.
Northwestern made Hill's life difficult, but he came up huge in the second half. The senior doesn't want to be known as the Illini who didn't play in an NCAA Tournament, and while that still seems likely, he is playing his butt off to try and change that narrative.
Finke is on fire. He is now 16-for-30 from three during Big Ten play. He needs more sets run for him.
Coleman-Lands contributed in ways without scoring. He had five points (2-5 FG), five rebounds, five assists and zero turnovers.
Groce cut down his rotation and even started Nichols for the second half. Senior center Mike Thorne did not play for the fourth time in nine games, and Jaylon Tate did not log a minute for the first time since the Jan. 11 game at Michigan (seven straight games of playing time). And while Jordan started, he only played four minutes. Morgan and Hill played 36 minutes. Lucas played a season-high 33 minutes. Groce -- who had no depth the last few seasons -- wanted strength in numbers this season, but that hasn't worked. To win, he has to play his best players more. An eight-man rotation gives the team its best chance to win. It just took him too long to figure that out.
Illinois played one of its better defensive games and continues to improve on that side of the ball. Law and McIntosh scored a combined 37 points but needed 34 shots to do it. The rest of the Wildcats shot 6-for-22 from the field.
What went wrong
The Illini missed a chance to pull away in the first half. They had a 21-12 lead at the 8:40 mark, and Northwestern did not make a field goal for the next 3 minutes and 36 seconds -- yet Illinois didn't widen its lead. Basketball is a game of runs, but the Illini's lack of execution on offense (careless turnovers, forced shots, little ball movement) gives the opposition too many chances for long runs.
The Illini need more from sophomore forward Leron Black. During the last 13 games, Black has 5.6 points and 5.9 rebounds. During Big Ten play, he is shooting 40.5 percent from the field. Expectations are higher for him.
Hey, let's not complain too much. Illinois got a pretty good win.
Illinois comes back home for a 1 p.m. Saturday tipoff against Penn State. The Nittany Lions (13-12, 5-7 Big Ten) beat Maryland at home and beat Illinois 71-67 in Happy Valley on Jan. 28. The Nittany Lions are taking a step forward as a program. They still have an identity of toughness under head coach Pat Chambers, but now have more talent, led by freshmen Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins. Illinois has lost two straight at home and the natives are restless. A loss at home to Penn State could put the final nail in Groce's coffin.