Illinois continued its enigmatic play Saturday. It came out flat, allowing Northwestern to build a 13-2 lead. The Illini then got hot. A Mike Tisdale layup and free throw tied the game at 15, and Illinois continued on a 20-2 run to push it's lead to 22-15.
NW reduced the lead to 39-36 at halftime despite being outshot by twenty percentage points and sitting leaders John Shurna and Michael Thompson with foul problems.
"They had Shurna and Thompson out," Illini coach Bruce Weber remembered. "We have to take advantage of that. Still, we survived that and had a good start to the second half."
Indeed, the Illini began the second half on a 12-5 run to grab an 8 point lead at 49-41. It was there they had several glorious opportunities to put the Wildcats deeper in a hole but made poor decisions according to Weber.
"We were up 8, but we had the ball at least three times in transition. We get a charge, we had turnovers and just don't play very smart.
"It's a repeat of what has happened several games. We have opportunities, we had the lead. We had fast break opportunities, we turned it over. If you don't have it, it's better to pull it out and run some offense.
"We don't play smart basketball. It's disappointing. We don't have consistency. The game was right there for us to take. We turned it over too much the second half."
Northwestern used switching defenses throughout, but Bill Carmody's decision to trap out on the court midway through the second half was most effective. Demetri McCamey had 13 points and four assists in the game, but he made several of his 6 turnovers during that stretch.
"To their credit, they went and doubled Demetri," Weber said. "He had six turnovers and got two offensive fouls. He's been pretty good for us, but his turnovers hurt us. When they double team him, he reacted wrong. He should let the other guys bring it up."
More than anything, the Illini lost because of an immature understanding of how to play a tight, pressurized game. Whenever they get a lead, they seem to relax their focus and begin to force things that aren't there or make careless plays. Rather than continuing to build the lead, they watch helplessly as it evaporates. They behave as if they have the game won, and now it's time to show off. It backfires.
"We don't play smart basketball," Weber agreed. "It's disappointing. We don't have consistency. The game was right there for us to take. We turned it over too much the second half. We let them run, but when we get a three on one we have to make a good decision. We didn't make very good decisions."
Northwestern went on a 12-1 run to gain a lead and extend it to 7 points. They scored on 14 of their last 16 possessions. The Illini had to foul, but Jeremy Nash and Shurna each made 9 of ten from the charity stripe for the game to maintain the lead.
Mike Davis didn't have an impact on the game. He had more fouls than rebounds (4-3), and he failed to score in three shots. His defense was inconsistent at best, especially on the perimeter.
Mike Tisdale ended with 14 points including his first three of the year as the game clock was running out. He also had six rebounds, but he played meekly in an effort to stay out of foul trouble. Illinois needed both Davis and Tisdale to play more aggressively.
D.J. Richardson led the Illini with 17 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. But Weber felt he could have done better also. Brandon Paul added 12 and showed off a midrange jumper for a change. But he still forces shots at times. Dominique Keller gave the Illini energy off the bench and added 10 points and four rebounds. He also had 3 turnovers.
Nash led the Wildcats with 22 points. Shurna added 19 and Drew Crawford 15. NW shot only 40.4%, but they outscored the Illini on points off turnovers 23-9 as they had only 7 turnovers compared to 16 for the Illini. Illinois outrebounded NW by 3, but the Wildcats had 10 offensive rebounds and led on second chance points 17-6.
Without doubt the biggest weakness on the Illinois quintet is a lack of leadership. Weber has no answers.
"It's tough to swallow. We are what we are. We talk about improving, we talk about determination. When we get to that point, we have to have a leader. Someone to win the game for us, to make a play, to get a stop."
The Illini travel to Penn State Wednesday, but that could end up a loss also if things don't improve fast.
"I've got to get them up, but they've got to get themselves up. I got mad at them in the locker room because no one says a word. Sooner or later they've got to make a decision. They've got to talk.
"Somebody's got to take the leadership. 'I want to be a leader. I want to have a good team. I'm gonna make some plays, I'm gonna help people out.' If they don't, we're just gonna continue to spiral. I can talk, I can fret, I can yell. Somebody says I yell too much, but I didn't yell at all today."
Weber is usually intense after a game, win or lose. But this time he was practically speechless. He isn't thinking about making the NCAA Tournament at this point. He just wants to get some more wins.
"I don't have anything to say. I don't know what to tell you. We have to play well, and we haven't consistently. We have another game on another day.