The short-handed Illini played without Brian Carlwell and Jamar Smith as a result of the auto accident Monday night that landed Carlwell in the hospital in critical condition.
Even with a short bench, Illinois' defense was more than enough to shut down the Wildcats. The Illini (19-9, 7-6) held Northwestern (12-14, 2-11) to a season-low 30.6% shooting percentage, and Northwestern's 37 points tied the Assembly Hall record for the fewest points scored by a Big 10 opponent, as well as being the lowest point total in the Bill Carmody era as head coach at Northwestern. Northwestern only scored 15 points in the second half, a new low under Carmody.
"Early in the season, we had the opportunity to win some games, but when we didn't play well offensively, we wouldn't continue to guard," said Illinois head coach Bruce Weber. "They have been pretty resilient, knowing that defense wins us games. I was proud of how they kept fighting and found a way to win."
The Illini mustered just enough offense to keep the Wildcats at bay, led by Rich McBride's 15 points on 5-10 shooting from behind the 3-point arc, and Warren Carter added 10 points. The Illini struggled to find offense against Northwestern's zone defense, shooting only 41% from the field, and hitting only 30% from outside the arc.
"I can't say enough about Rich," said Weber. "He's become a vocal leader, he's become a defensive stopper, he's made big shots for us. He's made huge strides as a player, and a person, and a leader."
The Illini defense held Northwestern without a double digit scorer in the game, and visibly frustrated senior forward Tim Doyle, who was held to 9 points after scoring 16 in the meeting between the two teams in Evanston 11 days ago. Brian Randle and McBride combined to force Doyle into a team-high 4 turnovers, and an upset Doyle got into a bit of a wrestling match with Illinois center Shaun Pruitt as the two fought for a loose ball late in the game.
The game was close through the early part of the first half until back to back 3's by McBride pushed the Illini to a 7 point lead with just over 13 minutes left. Northwestern closed to within 1 several times in the latter stages of the half as Illinois failed to take advantage of easy opportunities and failed to take advantage of defensive lapses by the Wildcats.
"It was one of those games," said Weber. "Brian Randle steals the ball, he has a dunk, but he throws it to Shaun, (and) Shaun loses it. Calvin's on the rim twice with little tip-ins, they don't go down. We've got three guys on the board, Calvin misses a tip, and they go down and get a three on one."
The second half was the Warren Carter show. Carter, scoreless in the first half, put up all 10 of his points in the second half, and twice extinguished Northwestern rallies that had cut the lead to 4.
Illinois once again outrebounded the smaller Wildcats, but not nearly as badly as in Evanston. Illinois had a 34-23 lead off the glass, but were led by guards Chester Frazier and Calvin Brock, each of whom had 7. The Wildcats had two bodies on Shaun Pruitt most of the evening, limiting him to only 5 boards after his dominant 16 rebound performance against them earlier in the season.
The game took place amid a bevy of outside issues that overshadowed the game itself. Besides the accident on Monday that resulted in Carlwell's injury and the loss of Smith for the remainder of the season, the day also featured the return of Dee Brown and Luther Head to Champaign during the off weekend for the NBA players. One of the loudest cheers of the afternoon occurred when Head and Brown appeared on the Jumbotron screen on the center-court scoreboard.
"To have Dee and Luther take their one free weekend to come down…the kids really appreciated that," said Weber. Dee came to practice yesterday and spoke with the team. Luther kinda snuck in the back door today. He's a man of very few words, but he said he's going to hang out tomorrow a little bit."
Carlwell sat at the end of the Illinois bench throughout the game., but he was noticibly weak, and moved very gingerly as he took his seat before the game. The Orange Krush had "21" signs ready to welcome Carlwell back, less than a week after he was placed in the Carle Hospital intensive care unit in critical condition after suffering a severe concussion when Smith's car hit a tree on Monday night.
Even more drama was introduced to the equation when it was announced on Friday that the University was retiring Chief Illiniwek, and that the traditional halftime dance by the long-standing symbol would end after next Wednesday's home finale against Michigan. A percentage of the Orange Krush donned black shirts in a protest against the decision.
Wednesday night's game will not only mark the end of the tradition of Chief Illiniwek, but it also marks Senior Night for McBride, Cater, and Marcus Arnold. The game tips off at 8PM, and Senior Night activities are expected to start at around 7:30.