Illinois 66, Northwestern 50
CHAMPAIGN - Can Illinois still make a case for the best Big Ten team in the state?
The Illini may sit on Selection Sunday, while Northwestern dances for the first time ever. But the Illini at least can claim "Our State, Our Team" outplayed "Chicago's Big Ten Team" during two head-to-head match-ups this season.
Illinois (16-12, 6-9 Big Ten) trailed for only 12 seconds in Tuesday's win over the Wildcats, which broke a three-game State Farm Center losing streak. The rivalry victory also ended the Illini's near two-year streak without consecutive Big Ten wins. Illinois last notched back-to-back wins in 2015, when it beat Northwestern (Feb. 28, 2015) and Nebraska (March 4, 2015).
Illinois took a 13-5 lead to start the game, but Northwestern responded with a 7-0 runWhile the Wildcats led for only 12 seconds in the first half, the game was within a field goal for most of the first 20 minutes -- culminating in a 33-32 score at the break. Northwestern forward Vic Law had zero points and three fouls in six first-half minutes.
Illinois pulled away in the final 10 minutes of the second half, going on a 12-0 run to claim its first double digit lead, during which Northwestern missed 11 straight field goals and went 6:27 without a field goal.
Northwestern (20-8, 9-6 Big Ten) shot a season-low 32.1 percent from the field, including 5-for-27 from the field (18.5 percent) in the second half. Illinois outrebounded Northwestern 42-30 and had fewer turnovers (11 to 8).
The loss keeps Northwestern one win away from a single-season record and one win away from clinching an over-.500 conference record for the first time in program history.
What it means
Northwestern still likely only needs one more win -- if that -- to feel confident when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced, but Illinois did its best part to play spoiler -- and showed the Wildcats have a lot of flaws right now. Meanwhile, Illinois still has three winnable games left on the regular season schedule (at Nebraska, home against a banged-up Michigan State squad and at Rutgers). While the Illini would likely need to win five more straight games to sniff the NCAA Tournament bubble -- Illinois hasn't won seven straight games against Big Ten opponents since 2004-05 -- they at least can hold onto hope of that possibility for a few more days. If only the Illini had taken care of business at home earlier in the season (Winthrop, Maryland, Minnesota, Penn State).
What went right
The Illini defense is improving and made Northwestern's stars work for their points. Though, Northwestern missed a lot of open threes (4-for-18 from beyond the arc). McIntosh needed 17 shots to score 16 points. Scottie Lindsey scored two points on 10 shots. Law did not make a field goal (3 points, 0-4 FG) and fouled out in 22 minutes. Isaiah Brown needed 14 shots to score nine points.
Te'Jon Lucas (9 points, 3 assists, 2 steals, 1 turnover) continues to be a bright spot. His ability to get to the rim and free throw line, and his ability to create for others is obvious. Though he's not a great scoring threat, he's a threat. But his defensive improvement has been more surprising. Lucas has great quickness on the ball and is a very aware defender off the ball. His strip of a dunk-attempting Pardon (with two fouls) was a huge play in the first half.
Black was active and confident early. While scoring isn't his No. 1 job, he has struggled in that duty lately. During the previous six games, he averaged just 4.2 points on 39.3 percent shooting. He got going early with a short jumper, a three-pointer -- an expanding part of his game (4-for-16 this season after shooting 0-for-3 as a freshman) -- and a tip-in to score seven of the Illini's first eight points. He was inefficient the rest of the way, though. Black is an important part of this team's future. He needs to add a post move to his repertoire and cut down on the fouls, but he still can be a pain for opposing teams.
Tracy Abrams (9 points, 5 rebounds) hit a three for the fourth straight game. Actually, he went 3-for-7 from three. Abrams went 3-for-30 from three during his first 11 Big Ten games. He is a modest but helpful 6-for-16 from beyond the arc during the last four games. He seems to have settled into his role.
Kipper Nichols (6 points, 3 rebounds) continues to add much-needed athleticism to the Illini. He had three blocks on Tuesday, the most by an Illini this season.
What went wrong
Jalen Coleman-Lands played only four minutes after rolling his left ankle early in the first half. He received treatment during the first half and sat on the bench for the second half.
It's an Illini win this season. Let's not get nit-picky.
Illinois travels to Nebraska for a 6:30 p.m. Sunday tipoff. The Cornhuskers (12-14, 6-8 Big Ten) have won back-to-back games (vs. Penn State, at Ohio State). Guards and leading scorers Tai Webster (17.7 points per game) and Glynn Watson (14.0 points) have received a boost from the return of Ed Morrow (7.0 points, 7.3 rebounds in three games since return from injury) and the rise of freshman post Jordy Tshimanga (8.6 points, 7.6 rebounds during last five games). Nebraska won its first three Big Ten games but lost eight of its next nine.