Illinois used stifling defense, and a high-flying offense, to break off a 24-2 run early in the first half, and never looked back after building a 19 point lead at 24-5 with 7:21 left in the half.
"We talked a lot about grinding it out, get it to eight, maintain, get it to ten, then twelve, and I think we did that. We never let them get on any big runs," said Illinois head coach Bruce Weber.
The Illini held the Wildcats to one basket over the span of over 10 minutes and forced 10 turnovers, while the offense, highlighted by three spectacular Rodney Alexander lob dunks, was working at a high level. The Illini shot almost 65% from the field and were perfect inside the 3 point arc during the pivotal run.
"The first one Rodney caught…I don't know how he caught it," said Weber. "It was one-handed, and he got it in, that was pretty impressive." "I thought it was too high at first," said Alexander. "I guess I got a push….somebody gave me a push. I don't know how I got to it."
The Illini didn't let up in the second half, forcing Northwestern into another 7 minute scoring drought, and pushed the lead out to 34 points with 6 minutes left. The second half run was powered by 3 point shooting by the Illini guards, who combined to hit 5-11 from behind the arc for the period. Trent Meacham hit 3 of his 4 attempts in the half as part of his 18 points, which led the team.
"Trent shot the ball well," said Weber. "He hasn't always done that at home. He's done it on the road, but not at home."
The Illini continued their domination of the glass against Northwestern, outrebounding the Wildcats 38-19. Chester Frazier led the Illini with 8 rebounds, and Brian Rnadle, who had a quiet game offensively, added 7 boards.
"Brian Randle showed some senior leadership and some toughness," said Weber. "He did not practice yesterday. The team doctor should get the game ball. He loaded Brian up with anything he had in his cabinet. Brian was coughing and spitting, but he focused on what he could do, and that was stop (Northwestern forward Kevin) Coble."
Randle did put the clamps on Coble, who came into the game averaging almost 17 points per game. Coble only got 4 shots all game, and finished with 3 points.
"Not too much good happened for us out there tonight," said Carmody. "They did a nice job defensively on Coble and (Craig) Moore. If we don't get 30 points out of them together, we're in trouble."
Moore, who averages 14 points/game, was held to only 5. Freshman guard Michael Thompson was the only Wildcat in double figures, scoring 13 points.
The game marked the return of Illinois senior center Shaun Pruitt from a one-game absence, widely reported to be for attitude issues and a post-game locker room incident. Bruce Weber would not call it suspension. "I never said suspension-you guys (the press) said that. He just didn't play. However you want to word it, I guess." Weber said that the incident involving Pruitt was more than just words after a game. "I want him to play on both ends, and I want him to have a positive attitude. I want ALL of us to have a positive attitude. Attitude means so much, and it affects everybody." Weber also stated "It hit a culmination. Some of it was the frustration of not winning, not playing as well as he anticipated. When it affected the whole team and the staff, we had to make a decision. I didn't like it, it's not easy to do. I don't think he liked it, and I don't think the team liked it."
Pruitt was asked about the issue after the game, and commented, "It was good to be back to playing. I'll try my best to play as hard as I can. Sometimes I let my frustrations and emotions get the best of me. It's my senior season, and I'm frustrated with the losses. My intentions are always good."
The Illini now face a road game against Michgan State on Wednesday night, and players and coaches alike realize that it will be no easy task. "We blew it the first weekend, and that's our fault," said Weber. "Now we've got to find a way to get a victory on the road, probably in a place we're not supposed to. That could be Wednesday night, but I know how hard that will be. If we're going to beat Michigan State, we're going to have to have 9 or 10 guys play up to their potential on the same night."