Northwestern is no longer the slow, methodical team of previous years. Possessing quickness, smarts and excellent outside shooting, the Wildcats took it to Illinois early and kept the pressure on throughout the game. Illinois coach Bruce Weber was both happy and relieved with the outcome.
"It was a great game. When you're down and win in overtime, it is big. We could have laid down but we didn't."
A capacity crowd was vital to the team's success. It clearly kept the Illini in the game when they were beginning to doubt themselves. Weber believes his team needs to repay the great crowd.
"The crowd was huge. To have a sellout after the last two games is amazing. This was tremendous. You've got to have some pride and feel like you have to give back."
Northwestern outscored Illinois 33-3 on three pointers to move out to a 42-33 hafetime lead. Shooting 47.8% from the arc, the Wildcats disdained their slow-down tactics to outscore the Illini. They gladly traded two points for three to build their lead.
The Illini were more intense and physical in the second half. Getting the ball inside to Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis often, they began to chip away at the lead. It helped that Wildcat shooting tailed off. Brandon Paul had been having another rough outing until he hit two consecutive threes to give the Illini a 56-55 lead, their first advantage since early in the game.
Northwestern always seemed to have an answer to any Illini success until late in the game. Good teamwork against a 1-3-1 NW zone found Bill Cole open for a three to extend the lead to 67-63, and Tisdale followed with a dunk off a nice feed from D.J. Richardson. Tisdale hit two free throws to make it 74-72 with 31.8 seconds remaining, but Luka Mirkovic's tipin tied it to extend the game to overtime.
Tisdale and Davis continued their inside dominance, each depositing two hoops to keep the Wildcats at bay. Tisdale fouled out after adding two freebies, but Davis kept up the inside pressure with a short hook. Northwestern continued to fight, but the Illini held on. Two free throws by Richardson, one by Cole and two by Paul completed the scoring and the win.
Wildcat coach Bill Carmody marveled at his team's statistics afterward.
"Eighty-four shots and only three turnovers. That's pretty amazing."
However, he couldn't find an answer for Tisdale as he finished the game with 31 points and 11 rebounds. He posted up for short hooks and jumpers, and he added 9-11 free throws. Carmody has seen him improve yearly.
"He's gotten better and better. He is a pretty good offensive player. From the get-go, we weren't able to contain Tisdale. We didn't have an answer for him."
Tisdale had a simple explanation for his good night.
"My teammates found me when I was open, and I made them. We've been practicing getting inside touches, so that even if we don't score we force the defense to collapse."
It appears recent talk of Illini inside players being soft didn't sit well with the big Illini junior.
"I scored 31 points. I love the challenge of being called soft."
It was an ideal game for both Tisdale and Davis as Northwestern played zone much of the way and didn't get physical with them. Davis added 20 points and 17 rebounds for his 7th double-double of the season.
The Illini offense improved second half, shooting 55.1% while holding the Wildcats to 28%. Carmody noticed the Illini tend to play better defense when their offense is clicking.
Illini guards Demetri McCamey, Richardson, and Paul provided minimal offense the first half, but they picked up their games when it mattered most. McCamey had only 9 points on 3-9 shooting, but he handed out 8 big assists while committing only two turnovers. Richardson finished with 12 points and Paul 8. Bill Cole played 27 minutes in a reserve role and added 9 points while doing a creditable job on Wildcat star Jon Shurna, who finished with 27 points.
The Illini seem to play best when McCamey is leading the offense and setting up teammates rather than carrying the scoring load himself. Weber hopes his postgame reminder will be remembered.
"I told Demetri his job as a point guard is to win. He doesn't always have to score. I told him he should feel good about it."
The Illini now complete their nonconference schedule with a big game this weekend against a talented Gonzaga quintet in Chicago. Weber hopes the Illini can build on this performance.
"It was a big win. But what we do from now is important. We need to keep getting better in practice. We have another big game Saturday."