With the Wildcats trailing by three in the second half, Davide Curletti stepped to the free throw line and missed his two foul shots, extending Northwestern's streak of missed free throws to five in a row.
The partisan crowd in Champaign initiated a loud, vibrant chant of "NIT! NIT! NIT!" toward the Wildcat players. The taunting cheer maddened the Wildcats.
"When we heard them chanting ‘NIT,' it just added a little fuel to the fire," said Northwestern guard Reggie Hearn, who posted a career-high 20 points against Illinois. "It spurred us on to wanting to achieve bigger things this year and making it to the big dance."
Northwestern has made three consecutive NIT appearances, but the program has never reached the NCAA tournament. Its tournament hopes needed the boost of a quality road win.
The Wildcats faced a chance for a signature win in Champaign, but their lead had slipped away in the second half. Then the Fighting Illini fans fired up Northwestern and its top scorer.
John Shurna took control of the game after that chant poured in from the sold-out crowd. He posted 12 points—part of his game-high 24 points—and helped the Wildcats come from behind to beat the Illini.
Shurna is known as a nice-guy off the court, but played with fire and anger during the second half at Assembly Hall. He demanded the ball and his teammates let him take over.
"When he gets rolling, he's really tough to stop," said junior guard Alex Marcotullio. "He's got that inside-outside game. He can put it on the floor and do everything. He's a really special player."
The 24-point performance was nothing special for Shurna, the Big Ten's leading scorer, who has averaged 19.6 points per game. Instead, it was the way that he was scoring that was significant. Shurna began to dominate.
"What I saw was a senior who wants to make the tournament this year and did what had to be done (against Illinois), probably more, to get that done," said Hearn.
"He was going to the basket and saying, ‘you, you, you, none of you can guard me.' He was just taking it to the rack, getting pull-up jumpers, and taking it all the way. It was a really dominating performance in the second half."
Shurna wasn't the only Wildcat who was fired up by the taunting; NU had four players in double figures against the Illini. Reggie Hearn's career performance was part of the big win.
Hearn and his teammates were sparked by the reminder of falling short for three straight seasons. That was motivation to get a win over Illinois, and more after that.
"It was probably just a collective thing that got us all a little bit heated," said Hearn of the chant. "Once we secured the victory, that was the revenge. We celebrated after the game; we were all happy, high-fives all around. We got that under our belt, now we're looking forward to Thursday."
Northwestern is likely in need of a .500 record in Big Ten play to reach the NCAA tournament, and needs to earn more key wins such as the one against Illinois.
The Wildcats are maintaining a one-game-at-a-time approach, with Iowa being the next opponent. Though big matchups against Top-25 teams lurk, Northwestern is staying focused on its one goal.
"I hate to say it, but this is the year; everyone's been talking about," said Marcotullio. "We know what we have to do to make the tournament. We've got to take it one game at a time and just concentrate on our opponent ahead of us."