Crawford leads NU past Eastern Illinois

Northwestern opened its season with a 72-55 win against Eastern Illinois.

There was good.

With just more than five minutes remaining in the first half, Eastern Illinois guard Reggie Smith launched a three-pointer from nearly 25 feet — in transition.

Once it left his hand, Smith attempted to collect his own rebound, only to find several Northwestern players waiting in position. Then, the Wildcats led 29-11.

There was bad.

With five seconds remaining in the first half, Smith put in a layup to bring EIU within four points. The Panthers also strung together an impressive 15-0 run.

An overmatched Ohio Valley Conference opponent exposed NU's lack of depth at times, swinging the "motion" offense into chaos and finding easy looks.

But of course, to balance an uneven performance, senior leader Drew Crawford reminded NU how to keep it together.

Crawford had 25 points and 11 rebounds, Jershon Cobb added eight assists, and Northwestern beat Eastern Illinois 72-55 after a late surge.

"Drew played like a fifth year All-Big Ten player," Chris Collins said. "He kept our team calm the entire game, even when we were going through struggles."

Midway through the second half, Northwestern finally pulled away, using precise ball movement to create lanes and open shots. It seemed fitting that Crawford iced the game, finding Cobb for a triple that stretched the lead to 13 — part of a decisive 14-5 run.

This win rested on the two upperclassmen, who carried NU throughout an unspectacular outing from supporting players. The Wildcats' bench shot a combined two-for-11, while Dave Sobolewski had an unusually sloppy offensive game.

The Wildcats' greatest strength also became their greatest weakness, with updated foul rules discouraging the newfound defensive intensity. Everyone in the starting lineup had at least three fouls and Cobb picked up the team's lone steal.

Crawford, though, managed one of his signature games. He went 8-of-14 from the floor, making five of his seven three pointers and all of his four free throws. The offense, as it should, lined up around the team's undisputed best player.

Part of that involved Cobb, the flexible combo guard. He helped to make the victory look relatively smooth despite some poor individual showings.

"JerShon, he's our playmaker," Collins said. "Some of his late-clock plays were huge for us. He drove in there and scored, or made some beautiful kick-outs."

NU arrived with energy–something Collins stressed–and opened up a 23-7 lead in the game's first 11 minutes. Crawford scored 12 of those points, immediately establishing himself on a team that tends to lack firepower.

Everything about EIU's 15-0 run felt like a cautionary tale. The help defense slipped, center Alex Olah made some critical lapses and Sobolewski struggled to lead the new-look offense.

"Their pressure bothered us," Collins said. "They turned up the heat. They had us on our heels a little bit. I thought our guys were tentative."

But course, the Wildcats figured it out, and Chris Collins left with his first win as a head coach.

Crawford, meanwhile, left to an ovation, and it was as it should be.

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