Demetri McCamey described the final play.
"It was a ball screen with me and Mike Davis. He slipped and I couldn't make eye contact. That's why I picked up the dribble. I found Trent. Trent penetrated and hit me on a back door, and I banked a jump shot. Coach gave me the ball again, he believed in me, and I made a big shot."
Other than a brief 20-20 tie in the first half, Illinois found itself fighting an uphill battle the whole way. As has been true in each of their road losses, the Illini broke away from their precision team game, hurrying shots and making turnovers that prevented a rally. It seemed they were fated to implode like at Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Every time they would get something going, Northwestern would answer. The Wildcats pushed the lead to 55-41 at the eleven minute mark, and their lead seemed safe as they milked the clock on each possession. Illinois had uncharacteristically missed all nine of their free throws at that point.
But little by little, the Illini clawed their way back. Trent Meacham, who had been quiet most of the game, turned it up a notch. His steal and layup made it a ten point game at 57-47. His long two-pointer made the score 57-50 at 3:38. Trent's penetration layup and free throw made the score 59-53.
Calvin Brock blocked a Jeremy Nash layup attempt, but Mike Davis missed the subsequent layup. Dominique Keller tied up Craig Moore, the possession arrow pointing to Illinois. Meacham then hit a three to make the score 59-56 with :59 left on the clock.
Illinois' trapping full court press became increasingly effective as the Wildcats became tentative. Moore traveled on a trap on an out of bounds play, and Meacham followed with a penetration layup to reduce the deficit to one point at 59-58. Meacham then knocked the ball out of bounds off Moore to set up McCamey's last second heroics.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber was ecstatic with the win, but he wasn't certain about the details.
"I'm not sure how we did it. We did pressure them and got them a little bit shook. We kept saying it was gonna be close. I didn't think they would have a 10-12 point lead. But we gave ourselves a chance at the end. They froze a little bit."
Weber empathized with Northwestern and its coach Bill Carmody.
"I'm not sure we should have won. They played their hearts out. They played really well. They made shots. I feel bad for Bill. He's done a great job with this program. He's lost a lot of heartbreakers over the years.
"This group is pretty good. There's no doubt about it. They're playing with a lot of confidence. They're an NIT team at least. I'd hate to play them in the Big 10 tournament."
Illinois began the game repeating the mistakes from recent road losses. Northwestern shot out to a quick lead as Luka Mirkovic and Jon Shurna hit threes. Chester Frazier penetrated for a scoop layup to end the drought, but Wildcats Michael Thompson and Shurna broke free for backdoor layups to extend the lead to 10-2.
The Illini made a game of it as they began to find openings inside for Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. But the Illini didn't always show the patience to find the open man. Part of the reason was that Northwestern came out in a switching man to man instead of their patented 1-3-1 zone.
Davis hit a corner jumper, and Tisdale banged in a layup once the Wildcats switched to their zone to tie the game 20-20. But Alex Legion misfired on a quick three shortly after entering the game, and Northwestern turned it into a fastbreak layup to keep Illinois at bay. The Wildcats led 31-25 at the break.
Luka Mirkovic was a surprise starter in the post but proved his worth by leading the Wildcats with 14 points, 12 rebounds and 4 assists. Kevin Coble added 14 points, five rebounds and 4 assists. As a team, Northwestern shot 42.3% from the field and 36.4% from the three point line.
McCamey was the scoring leader for the Illini with 21 points. He also added 6 rebounds, 5 assists and 2 steals. Meacham scored 15 points, 12 coming the last five minutes of the game. He ended his shooting slump with a bang, hitting 6 of 8 shots including 2 of 3 three pointers. He also added two assists and two steals.
Chester Frazier was a stat stuffer as usual. He scored only 2 points but pulled down 7 rebounds and added 8 assists. And he held Wildcat scoring leader Moore to 8. Davis added 10 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals, while Tisdale provided 10 more points to the total. As a team, the Illini shot 48% from the field to make up in part for their 2-12 performance at the line.
The Big 10 race is still confusing, but Illinois has a chance to make more headway by repeating their road win at Indiana Sunday.
"I told them, if you don't take this and grab it and go, you're disappointing," Weber said afterward. "Now we've got to grab the gusto. We've got to go to Indiana and be ready to play.
"Tom Crean has got those guys playing every game. They come at you. I told them we've got to get Iowa, Northwestern and Indiana. Now we've got two of the three. Let's get the third and then sit down and figure out the rest of the mess."