Illinois stops the ‘Paign

Adam Nekola

Adam Nekola

By Courtney Linehan

Illinois picked up a much-needed confidence boost Wednesday with a 63-47 win over Northwestern at Assembly Hall.

The No. 14 Illini (21-4, 7-4) brought a team effort, as Rich McBride led with 17 points and Dee Brown added 16. James Augustine led the rebounding with nine boards and Brian Randle grabbed eight more.

“I think that’s what we’ve been emphasizing, energy, enthusiasm, just having fun,” Brown said. “You’ve got to have fun playing basketball. We’ve got to bring the fun back.”

Illinois started the game with a 15-3 run, and the closest the Wildcats got in the first half was four points from a tie. But Warren Carter made a layup with 2:08 before the half and followed it up with a free throw to stretch Illinois’ lead to seven points going into the break.

“We turned it over in the first half,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “The second half we had one turnover until the end of the game. In the second half we just did a much better job of executing.”

Northwestern (12-11, 4-7) came out strong, however, and began the second half with an 8-2 run in just over three minutes. Tim Doyle sunk a pair of free throws and Mohamed Hachad made a layup, but Northwestern’s biggest boost came from Vince Scott, who sunk a three pointer and a pair of free throws.

But Illinois answered, and six minutes later the Illini owned a 44-31 lead.

The Wildcats came close again at 8:09, with help from back-to-back three-pointers by Scott and a three-point play by Doyle.

“I was happy the way our guys battled back, I think we played pretty hard,” Northwestern head coach Bill Carmody said. “We had a pretty nice start at the beginning of the second half.”

But the second half belonged to Brown who, after making just a single two-point shot in the first 20 minutes, came out to score 14 in the second. Brown’s steal and full-court breakaway run for the three-point play at 5:24 sealed the Illini win.

“My teammates just moved the ball well and I took it upon myself to make some shots, step up and contribute to the win,” Brown said.

Northwestern struggled without senior forward Vedran Vukusic, who sat out with back pain. Carmody said Vukusic was expected to play, and that they will know today how long he’ll be out.

But Hachad stepped up, scoring 17 points, grabbing four rebounds and picking off two steals. Scott added 11 points and two assists.

“If you know basketball you know that teams play better without their best player because other guys have opportunities to step up and make big plays,” Brown said.

Illinois next faces Indiana, who Weber said is going through turmoil after coach Mike Davis resigned Wednesday night. But Illinois’ head coach is still expecting a tough game.

“It’s going to be on CBS, national TV. They’re fighting to get into the NCAA tournament,” Weber said. “It’s going to be a barn-burner.”