Illinois is on fire. The Illini have rattled off 8 wins in a row including a perfect month of February. To think that after the last time they faced Northwestern they left with a 1-2 record in the Big 10 is mind boggling. This isn't the same Illini team that Northwestern faced last month. However, on Saturday the Wildcats went to battle with Illinois for most of the 1st half. Coach Bruce Weber was concerned with his team heading into halftime.
"The thing we talked about at halftime was emotion. You have to have emotion and you have to have enthusiasm," said Weber. After allowing the Wildcats to shoot 52% in the 1st half, the enthusiastic Illini came out charged up on defense and put the clamps down on NU. The Wildcats were limited to 37% shooting in the 2nd half.
The Illini guard tandem of Williams, Head, and Brown was again great but it was the X-factors Roger Powell and Nick Smith that were the difference. Smith even started the 2nd half in place of James Augustine. "Nick was big for us, he saved us in the 1st half. It seems like every game it's someone different," said Weber. Smith shot well putting up 7-10 numbers for 14 points in 26 minutes of action. Powell was equally effective. After being held to 2 points in the 1st half, Powell came out with emotion in the 2nd half and really put the hurt on Northwestern. He came alive for 11 second half points and more importantly finished the game with 3 key offensive rebounds.
The game was very workmanlike for the Illini but they'll take it. A win is a win at this point in the season when you're riding a nice winning streak. The Illinois are focused and look to be smelling blood. "Our whole focus is on the big picture, trying to win a championship, trying to get a high seed in the NCAA's and hopefully doing some damage there," said Weber.
Dee Brown is focused as well. "I see the big picture, we've got a chance to win the Big 10 Championship. Deron tells me all the time that I gotta pick it up and we can do this," claimed Brown. "Everything is clicking for us. I'm having so much fun just seeing us come together. It's fun when you're playing as a team and everyone is sharing the ball."
For now the Illini will look ahead to their next matchup with Purdue. The Boilermakers were the only team to defeat the Illini at Assembly Hall and revenge is definitely on the players and coaching staffs mind. "It comes down to the last week and this is what you play for. It's going to be a battle (at Purdue) no doubt but hopefully we'll rise to the occasion," said Weber.
ILLINI GRADE REPORT:
Backcourt- The guys were phenomenal as usual. Brown led the team with 20 points, Williams led with 8 assists, and Head led with 8 rebounds. It's clear that the guards are the key to winning games.
Frontcourt- 2 out of 3 isn't bad. James Augustine had an off night and was ineffective against the NU zone but Nick Smith gladly picked up the slack. Smith and Powell combined for 27 points.
Bench- As said earlier, Smith was good in that he made shots. McBride, Randle, and Ingram all filled their roles by giving the starters some breathers.
Overall a nice performance on Senior Day. The crowd was into it, the players wanted it, and the Illini kept the train rolling. Up next is a tough battle with Purdue at Mackey Arena.