Illinois dominated the Wildcats on the boards, winning the rebound battle by a tally of 40-16. The Illini had as many offensive rebounds (16) as Northwestern did total rebounds, and Illinois' Shaun Pruitt had on less rebound (15) than the entire Wildcat team.
"We told our kids that they're not a great rebounding team," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "They don't really go to the glass, especially on the offensive end, and we said that we had to dominate the boards. Every time we get an offensive rebound, they have to guard a lot more than they want to. That's something we emphasized in the scouting report."
"It's the same old story for us," said Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody. "We're not shooting the ball very well, and we can't seem to get any rebounds."
The Illini (18-8, 6-5) used their rebounding, plus another solid defensive effort, to put Northwestern (11-12, 1-9) away early. Illinois went on a 9-0 run to start the game, and held Northwestern to 3 points in the first 10 minutes of the first half. Chester Frazier hit back to back three pointers, and the Illini lead bulged to 17-3 after a Pruitt layup at the 9:59 mark. Northwestern closed to with 3 points with just over a minute to go in the half, but a pair of free throws by Pruitt and a 3-pointer by Rich Mcbride sent the Illini to the locker room with a 31-23 halftime lead.
"I thought the 5-0 run at the end of the half was real important," said Weber. "When Brian Randle got in foul trouble, Warren can't come out and he got tired, they went small and made that run that got them back in the game. Rich made the three, and Shaun made two free throws."
The teams traded baskets early in the second half before Illinois went on a 20-7 run that put the game out of reach. A pair of threes by Rich McBride and Warren Carter fueled the run, and Pruitt capped it with a layup (off an offensive rebound) at the 4:50 mark to put Illinois up 53-35. The Wildcats scored two layups late against the Illinois bench (including a rare CJ Jackson sighting) to close the lead to 15, which was the final margin.
"I try not to look at the stat sheet a lot, but I knew I had a lot of rebounds," said Pruitt.
Warren Carter led the Illini in scoring with 17 points, and added 8 rebounds of his own. Rich McBride continued his steady performance, adding 15 points on 5-11 shooting from behind the arc, and drew the defensive assignment on Tim Doyle, the senior forward for Northwestern (who bears a remarkable resemblance to Richard Keene, particularly the quaff of slicked-back hair…but Doyle plays defense….) who was by far the most active Wildcat on the evening. McBride also took over point guard duties for extended stretches of the game.
"If Trent struggles a little bit, we have to go Rich and Jamar (at the point)," said Weber. "He's not a jet or anything, but he's taking care of the ball and getting it where it's supposed to be. When he run plays, he knows every player's spot. He's a really intelligent player."
The game marked the return to the lineup of Chester Frazier, who was held out of the Minnesota game due to lingering injuries. Frazier logged 17 minutes, and scored his only 6 points on the first half 3-pointers.
"We were trying to keep him (Frazier) under 20 (minutes)," said Weber. "Al (Martindale, Illinois trainer) would say ‘You gotta get him out' after a minute or so. Then he'd make him sit for so long a period, then he'd tell us to get him back in."
Illinois held Northwestern to 40.5% shooting from the field, and continued to clamp down from behind the arc, holding Northwestern to a meager 16.7% shooting from deep. Randle and Carter put the clamps on Northwestern's leading scorer, Kevin Coble, who was held to only 9 points on 4-9 shooting.
The 15 point defeat was the worst home loss of the season for the Wildcats. However, there were plenty of fans still in the seats and cheering until the very end, since easily 40% of the crowd was wearing orange. The Illini faithful regularly drowned out the Northwestern band and fans with the "ILL-INI" chants, and at one point the Wildcat cheerleaders attempted, then quickly gave up on, a "C-A-T-S" cheer during a timeout, and the orange-clad faithful quickly set up a counter-cheer.
The Illini got over .500 in the Big Ten for the first time this season. Next up for Illinois is a rematch with Indiana, who Illinois beat in Champaign on January 23rd. The game in Bloomington is scheduled to tip off at noon, and will be televised nationally by CBS.