The Wildcats improved to 14-8 (4-7) on the season, while earning their first win over a top-25 opponent. This win was a huge statement after their first meeting of the season, where Illinois pounded Northwestern by 24 points.
Saturday was a different game for the Wildcats. The sellout crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena was a huge factor, but it was Northwestern's demeanor that made the difference. The Wildcats came out of the gates strong, while Illinois started out slowly, a complete change from the first matchup.
While it was an embarrassment for Northwestern in their first meeting, the Wildcats downplayed any idea of revenge.
"Revenge wasn't a factor," said sophomore forward Drew Crawford. "It was an embarrassing loss down in Champaign. That's something we've moved on from, watched a lot of film, and came back the right way."
Michael ‘Juice' Thompson led all scorers with 22 points, 18 of those coming in the second half. Also leading the way for Northwestern was freshman guard JerShon Cobb with 13 points and Drew Crawford with 12 points.
The Northwestern defense held the Fighting Illini under 50% shooting, and forced 32 turnovers.
The game came down to the wire, but some strategic coaching from Bill Carmody helped seal a huge win for the Wildcats. Down by three points, the Fighting Illini were not able to see a potential game-tying shot, because Bill Carmody elected to foul the clutch-shooting Illini.
The strategy paid off beautifully. Northwestern was able to put the game away at the free throw line, while Illinois missed their free throws which would have given them a chance to hang around.
The Wildcats set the tone early in the game. Drew Crawford started the game with a three-pointer then a two-pointer, and JerShon Cobb followed with a pair of two-pointers as well. Northwestern jumped to a quick 9-0 lead, proving to Illinois that Saturday would be different.
Near the midway point of the first half, the Wildcats extended their lead to 11, coming on a Drew Crawford three-pointer.
The Illini would claw their way back into the game late in the first half, tying the game at 29 on a Meer Leonard dunk.
However, a big sequence helped Northwestern close out the half with a bang, as the Wildcats closed out the half on a 6-0 run. Luka Mirkovic would hit a layup, and then swat a shot on the other end. Then, Juice Thompson would get a steal and layup to give the ‘Cats a four-point lead. Then, JerShon Cobb hit two free throws with no time on the clock, to give Northwestern a 35-29 lead going into the break.
The Wildcats would continue their surge into the second half. Midway through the period, the Wildcats opened a 12-point lead, their largest lead of the game. Bruce Weber called a timeout, and rallied his veteran team.
The Illini responded with a 12-0 run, tying the score at 53. With 1:25 on the clock, Northwestern held a seven-point lead, and looked to be in control of the game, when things got interesting. Brandon Paul immediately drained a three-pointer to cut the lead. After Juice Thompson hit a pair of free throws, the Illini scored five-straight points, making the score 68-67.
The Wildcats received two free throws from John Shurna to give the ‘Cats a 70-67 lead. On the other end, the Wildcats prevented Illinois from shooting a potential game-tying three-pointer by fouling Demetri McCamey, and the senior would miss the first of a one-and-one, which would be the final dagger.
Luka Mirkovic would extend the lead to four, and Brandon Paul's buzzer-beating three-pointer would mean nothing, as the Wildcats earned a big victory.
The fast start for Northwestern was all they needed to take momentum of the game. Playing in front of a raucous home crowd is always a big advantage, but the ‘Cats never let up the intensity after their fast start.
More importantly, while facing adversity in the second half, Northwestern received a big boost from their senior leader, Juice Thompson.
Thompson's 18 second half points gave the entire Wildcat team a huge lift, proving that they could get over the hump.
"He did it last week against Ohio State, and he was huge down the stretch tonight," said Drew Crawford of Juice Thompson. "It gets us going as a team, and it gets the crowd going. He's our leader."
Thompson has had some big moments against tough opponents, but the Wildcats have come up just short in each game. The ‘Cats battled with Purdue only to fall, lost twice to then-ranked Michigan State, and falling a week ago to #1 Ohio State. In each of those games, Thompson has given the Wildcats a huge offensive boost, but each time, it has come up short. Saturday was different for Juice and the Wildcats.
Another first for Northwestern was their ability to hold onto their lead. The ‘Cats have held a second half lead in each of their upset bids, only to lose it late in the game. Once again, Saturday was different.
Despite Illinois' best comeback efforts, the Wildcats were able to hold off a rally.
"They didn't quit, they kept coming at us at coming at us," said Bill Carmody. "I won't say we were lucky, but we were fortunate."
Going forward, Saturday's win will prove to be key. The Wildcats are now 14-8 on the season, with five-straight games against unranked opponents.
Tipoff for that game is set for 5:30 CT.