Stunning defensive effort keys Illinois upset

Sure, they got some help. But Northwestern – from out of nowhere – put forth a stunning defensive effort in upsetting No. 23 Illinois.

His team fatigued, desperately trying to hang on, Chris Collins turned to his players: "We can be tired tomorrow," he said. "We can't be tired tonight."

And you know how it turned out. Northwestern stunned No. 23 Illinois 49-43 on Sunday night, triggered by its best 40 defensive minutes of the season. They needed every one.

Despite the four-game losing streak – three of them conference blowouts – the Wildcats retained their intensity. From the outset, the new look lineup (without injured point guard Dave Sobolewski) appeared to set the "upset" tone by forcing Illinois into difficult looks.

"I'm just so proud of how our guys played," Collins said. "You guys could sense from them – just from the start of the game – we were so locked in defensively."

Illinois scored just eight points in the first 12 minutes, with contributions from nearly every NU player. Overall, the team communicated well on the many Illinois screens, avoiding cheap baskets. They completely shut down Rayvonte Rice, who made just two of his 11 field goal attempts.

And it extended to the quiet but strong individual play. Fill-in Kale Abrahamson was exceptional in closing out on Illini sharpshooter John Ekey, giving him little room to operate on the perimeter. Sanjay Lumpkin, who lost a tooth during the win, resembled his early-season self by scrambling for loose balls and contesting every shot imaginable.

The credit, though, went in part to Alex Olah — not normally known for his defensive skillset. The center, and team's only big man, held up well on the interior beyond his own assignment.

"All they were doing the whole game was putting Alex Olah in pick and roll," Collins said. "He was the unsung hero: he stayed in front of their guards the whole game, he made them take tough shots over the top of him, and then our guards were able to clean it up."

Still, despite the heroic defensive effort, NU's offense continued to sputter. The Wildcats shot 37 percent overall, and even with Tre Demps' three consecutive makes from behind the arc, it was a dismal showing. They spend too much time ignoring Alex Olah, often going several minutes without quality shots. That put even more of a burden on the defense, which needed 40 quality minutes to hold off a ranked opponent.

It was scary near the end. Rather than comfortably breaking the press, the Northwestern offense kept panicking. Demps turned it over in his own backcourt, and with 48 seconds remaining, Drew Crawford threw a ridiculous deep pass that gave Illinois possession — only down five. But Collins said it was their response that defined the game.

"We got stops," he said. "We took a charge, we got a big rebound. We didn't let the turnover then dictate our next possession."

In a week, we'll remember the numbers: NU held Illinois to 28 percent shooting, 21 percent from behind the arc. In a year, we'll remember this as Collins' unexpected first Big Ten win.

Tonight, though, we can appreciate the forty tough defensive minutes from Northwestern, wondering whether it can be sustainable moving forward. With one strong game, Northwestern basketball fans were reminded of what success really feels like.

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