Jeremy Nash notched a career-high 22 points, including 14 in the second half, as Northwestern rallied past in-state rival Illinois 73-68. John Shurna added 19 points and Drew Crawford chipped in 15 as the Wildcats used a 20-5 run in the second half to give Northwestern its first victory over the Illini since 2004.Northwestern improves to 14-5 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten while Illinois, which has now lost three consecutive games, falls to 12-8 overall and 4-3 in league play.
The win took place in front of a spirited sellout crowd of 8,117 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.With both teams shooting south of 40 percent from beyond the 3-point line in the game, the action often shifted down low where Illinois held a slim 32-28 scoring advantage in the paint for the game. The all-important rebounding margin was equally as tight, with the Illini pulling down 31 boards to Northwestern's 28. Luka Mirkovic spearheaded the effort in the post for NU, grabbing a game-high nine rebounds.
The Wildcats got off to a tremendous start in the first half, opening up a 13-2 lead after six minutes of action on the strength of eight early points by Crawford. But momentum quickly swung the other direction as Illinois managed to score 20 of the game's next 22 points to take a seven-point lead, 22-15.Northwestern answered the challenge and kept things close in the ensuing six minutes despite the absence of floor general Michael Thompson, who was limited to just eight minutes of playing time in the first half due to his three personal fouls.
With 32 seconds to play before the intermission, Nash connected on one of his three 3-point field goals to draw the 'Cats within one at 37-36. But Illinois' Demetri McCamey drew a foul on the last possession of the stanza and sank two free throws to give Illinois a three-point cushion entering the locker room.The visitors led by as many as eight early in the second half, but the tide began to turn in NU's favor beginning with the under-8 media timeout. A perfectly executed backdoor play coming out of the huddle resulted in a two-handed throwdown by Shurna, inching the Wildcats to within five.
A layup by Crawford and two free throws courtesy of Shurna cut NU's deficit to two, 52-50. On the next Wildcat possession, Nash brought the crowd to its feet and completed NU's comeback with a trey on the left wing to give Northwestern its first lead since the 10-minute mark of the first half. After an Illinois timeout, Thompson made his presence known with a clutch 3-pointer--his first bucket of the game--at the 4:34 mark, and Nash and Shurna each hit big field goals when they counted most to put the 'Cats ahead by seven.Illinois was able to make one last run at stealing a road victory, as a 3-pointer from the top of the key by center Mike Tisdale drew the Illini to within three points with five seconds left. Nash calmly iced the game for NU with a pair of free throws, securing his career high in the process. For the game, NU hit on 24 of its 32 attempts from the free throw line (75 percent) compared to Illinois' 10 makes on 15 tries.
Northwestern goes on the road to Minnesota Tuesday with a chance to pull level at .500 in the conference.