Tight defense sparks offense

Members of the Orange Krush hold up signs in support of injured freshman Brian Carlwell before the game against Northwestern at the Assembly Hall on Sunday. The Illini won an ugly game, 48-37, behind swarming defense. ME Online

Members of the Orange Krush hold up signs in support of injured freshman Brian Carlwell before the game against Northwestern at the Assembly Hall on Sunday. The Illini won an ugly game, 48-37, behind swarming defense. ME Online

By Eric Chima

Defense

After all that has happened to the Illinois men’s basketball team in the past week, or even the past year, it was only fitting that its game with Northwestern be an ugly, drawn-out, low-scoring affair. And for a team that has been on its heels all year, a defensive mindset must come naturally.

It was that mindset that pulled the Illini past the Wildcats Sunday, making up for an Illinois offense that often stagnated into two guards lobbing the ball back and forth above the perimeter.

“It took us a while to get back into it (after a week off), but our defense was still there, and that’s what won us the game,” forward Warren Carter said.

The defensive statistics were overwhelming: the Illini held visiting Northwestern to a season-low 30.6 percent shooting and just 37 points, 19 below its season average. The performance tied the record for fewest points by an opposing Big Ten team in Assembly Hall. Not a single Wildcat reached double figures in scoring, and the Illini held Northwestern to just 15 points in the second half.

Tim Doyle, who scored 16 points and went to the line eight times in the first meeting, scored just nine points Sunday and took only two free throws.

“They made a real effort to double-team me in the post,” Doyle said. “I thought I made some good decisions to kick the ball out. It would have looked more successful if we could have made some outside shots.”

The defense had to compensate for an offense that could get little going. The Illini had one pass after another deflected and shot only 38 percent in the first half. Northwestern coach Bill Carmody credited the Illinois defense for creating some of the few open shots the Illini saw in the second half.

“In the second half, their defense was excellent,” Carmody said. “We really couldn’t do much. When it’s so hard to score for us, it weakens our defense on the other end of the court.”

Illini dominate inside

For the first half of Sunday’s game, the smaller Wildcats were able to hang with the Illini inside. They outscored Illinois 10-8 in the paint and pulled down just two fewer rebounds. Center Shaun Pruitt and Carter were unable to dominate Northwestern inside the way they did in the first meeting, and the Wildcats stayed within one point at the break.

In the second half, everything changed. Pruitt and Carter took over, the Wildcats wore down and the Illini pulled away.

“The one that’s made huge strides is Shaun Pruitt from the beginning of the year,” Weber said. “He’s starting to help more. I used to talk about needing a stopper in the middle, and I’m not sure he understood what I was saying, but he’s become one.”

Carter scored all of his points in the second half as Illinois outscored Northwestern 14-4 in the paint and out-rebounded them 18-9. For the game, the Wildcats shot just three free throws, and their leading rebounder pulled down just five boards.

“They wore us down a little bit,” Carmody said.

The Chief’s (second to) last dance

Fans reacted loudly to Chief Illiniwek’s first performance since University officials announced that he would be retired after Wednesday’s game.

About one-third of the Orange Krush, along with some other fans scattered throughout the arena, removed their orange t-shirts after the Chief’s performance to reveal black shirts underneath. Chants of “Save the Chief!” echoed after halftime and as time ran down in the second half.

After the game, the team’s three seniors expressed ambivalence about the Chief’s fate. Carter seemed more upset about the impending loss of veteran PA announcer Jim Sheppard, who will stop covering basketball games after this season.

“We love that guy,” Carter said. “We didn’t know his name, but we would imitate him in practice.”