With momentum on its side, Northwestern (11-4, 1-2) unraveled in the second half, losing the lead and control of the game. A back-and-forth finish would give Illinois a 57-56 win at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The Wildcats would shoot 24 percent from the field during the second half. Meanwhile, John Shurna scuffled while matched up with Brandon Paul's stingy defense. After a 17-point first-half performance, Shurna, the Big Ten's leading scorer, hit one of seven shots in the second half.
"They really clamped down on us, kept us from scoring," said head coach Bill Carmody. "We just weren't able to get on track. You have to give them credit for that second-half defense."
Trailing by ten points late in the first half, Illinois came out of a timeout with five straight points, then continued its run in the second half. Northwestern went without a field goal for nearly nine minutes in the second half. The Illini had opened up a five-point lead.
With a seven-point deficit at hand in the final minutes, Northwestern charged back. Alex Marcotullio hit a three-pointer, then John Shurna delivered another three-pointer. Suddenly, the Illini's lead was at one point. After Meyers Leonard hit one of two free throws, Drew Crawford tied the game with a tip-in.
Looking for a game-winning shot, Illinois freshman guard Myke Henry drew a blocking foul on Crawford, striking discontent from the Wildcat fans. Henry would hit a go-ahead free throw, giving Illinois the lead.
Crawford did not offer an immediate opinion to the foul's validity when asked in the postgame press conference.
"I was just trying to make a play," Crawford said of the blocking foul. "I'm not really sure, actually. I'll see it on tape and then I'll make a decision."
Crawford struggled in the loss, finishing with eight points on a 3-of-12 shooting struggle. He faced a chance for redemption in the final seconds, but his game-winning attempt was denied by Leonard.
I got the rebound (off the missed Henry free throw), and coach was telling us to push it up the court," Crawford said. "I got to the basket, came up to the basket, probably should have gone all the way to the basket, stopped short, and it was a good block."
Illinois changed up its game plan defensively at halftime, when Bruce Weber moved Brandon Paul to guard John Shurna, and D.J. Richardson on Drew Crawford. In the second half, Shurna and Crawford, ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in Big Ten scoring, hit three of 16 second-half shots.
"D.J. (Richardson) is good at getting the shooters, but obviously, Shurna had his number in the first half," said Weber. "Brandon got (Shurna) most of the second half and did a great job, there is no doubt."
Northwestern now faces a one-week layoff between games. The Wildcats take the weekend off as they prepare for a game in Ann Arbor against Michigan on Wednesday, Jan. 14. Tipoff is set for 5:30 C.T.
• The Wildcats have now dropped three of their last four games, falling to 11-4 on the season.
• Freshman guard David Sobolewski struggled in the first half, missing his first five shots. He did not attempt a field goal in the second half.
• Northwestern shot 46.7 percent in the first half, but would be troubled by a 6-for-25 struggle in the second half. The Wildcats' struggles carried over to the charity stripe, where they would hit 6 of 11 free throws.
• A go-to three-point shooter last season, Alex Marcotullio attempted just two shots in his 17 minutes of play.
• With the win, Illinois snaps a five-game Chicago-area losing streak, and avoids its third consecutive loss in Evanston.