Size, athleticism fuel Illini victory

By Jason Grodsky

The only meeting of the season between in-state rivals Illinois and Northwestern proved to be a good one for the Illini.

Illinois took advantage of its size and athleticism to keep the Wildcats winless in the Big Ten and earn its second conference victory of the season. The Illini outrebounded the Big Ten’s worst rebounding team 38-19 en route to a 70-37 victory Sunday night.

Northwestern attempted to compensate for its lack of size by playing a zone defense to start the game, but the Illini responded by using ball movement around the perimeter to create scoring opportunities inside and out.

“It was a good overall team effort and something positive to build off of,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “We had success with our zone offense. If you get good ball movement, they can’t keep up with it.”

The Illini assisted on 18 of their 26 field goals in the game, including three thunderous alley-oop dunks by junior college transfer Rodney Alexander in the first 11 minutes.

The Assembly Hall crowd was electrified by Alexander’s ability to elevate over the Northwestern defense and put the finishing touches on passes from guards Demetri McCamey and Chester Frazier.

After scoring a career-high 20 points last Tuesday at Ohio State, Alexander followed up with eight points, all in the first half. When asked how he’s turned it on the last few games, Alexander responded by saying he’s not just sitting back and letting the game go by.

“I’m running the whole game now,” Alexander said. “I’m not stopping and just watching anymore.”

Pruitt returns to lineup

Senior center Shaun Pruitt returned to the court after serving a team suspension last week against Ohio State that snapped his streak of 87 consecutive starts.

Pruitt wasn’t among the starting five, but was inserted into the game at the 14:02 mark in the first half and proved his worth to the Illini quickly.

“It was good to be back to playing,” Pruitt said. “Sometimes I let my frustrations get the best of me, and sometimes people misunderstand my emotions, but my intentions are always good for my team.”

In a game that was won by the Illini’s size up front, the Aurora, Ill., native scored nine points, grabbed three rebounds and collected one steal to help hold Northwestern to a season-low 37 points.

“Coach (Jay) Price did a good job of preparing us for Northwestern,” Pruitt said. “We stopped them from picking us apart and prevented them from using their back door.”

Youth, bench showcased in second half

With Illinois up big for most of the game Sunday night, Weber had a chance to reward some of his players who don’t see the court that often with some playing time.

Freshmen Jeff Jordan and Bill Cole both saw a good amount of time on the court in the second half, and junior Steve Holdren saw action in his fourth conference game of the year.

Jordan found his way onto the score sheet from the free throw line, making all four of his attempts at the charity stripe to help the Illinois bench players outscore Northwestern’s bench 28-7.

“(Jeff)’s been playing a lot better in practice and he deserved those minutes,” junior guard Trent Meacham said.

Holdren also made his way onto the score sheet, making his only three-point attempt, and Cole also made his only field goal attempt and collected a steal, a blocked shot and a rebound in 10 minutes of play.

Redshirt freshman Richard Semrau and crowd favorite Chris Hicks also got into the action late in the game but neither scored.