Improbable comeback seals 60-59 win over Wildcats

Trevor Greene The Daily Illini Illinois players celebrate after beating Northwestern in the final seconds at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill. on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009. The Illini did not hold the lead over the Wildcats until the final shot, made by Illinois Demetri McCamey, brought the team to its 60-59 victory.

Trevor Greene The Daily Illini Illinois players celebrate after beating Northwestern in the final seconds at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill. on Thursday, Feb. 12, 2009. The Illini did not hold the lead over the Wildcats until the final shot, made by Illinois’ Demetri McCamey, brought the team to its 60-59 victory.

By Jeremy Werner

EVANSTON, Ill. – It wasn’t quite the stage of the Illini’s improbable Elite Eight win four years ago versus Arizona, but the odds were almost as unfavorable for Illinois at Northwestern on Thursday.

Down 14 points with 6:22 remaining, the Illini looked like they were headed for their fifth-straight road loss. But a Demetri McCamey jumper off the backboard with 0:02 remaining gave Illinois its first lead of the game and a 60-59 win over the Wildcats at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

As memorable or important as the 2005 win over Arizona? Likely not. But it will be another insert in Illini basketball lore shared by those who partook in or watched the improbable comeback.

“That one to get to the Final Four was one of the most memorable,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “But I’ve been it in for 30 years now, and this is one I’ll definitely remember for a long time.”

“It just helps us get to our ultimate goal of getting to the NCAA Tournament,” McCamey said of his last-second shot. “It’s nothing personal for me, I’m just helping the Illini win basketball games.”

Though McCamey sunk the highlight shot and led the Illini with 21 points, Trent Meacham keyed the comeback. The senior guard scored 12 of his 15 points in the final five minutes as the Illini finished the game on a 17-2 run.

He also forced a turnover on Northwestern’s final possession, deflecting the ball off Michael Thompson’s body out of bounds to give the Illini the ball with 0:13 left. Though he “definitely wanted” the last shot, Meacham dished the ball to McCamey on the final possession for the game-winning assist.

“We just stayed together,” Meacham said. “Good teams win games like this, so it feels good to win one.”

In front of a majority pro-Illini crowd, Illinois struggled offensively against Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone defense early on. Illinois failed to take advantage of a 3:39 second-half Northwestern scoring drought by going on a 4:08 scoreless run themselves.

But Illinois’ offense fed of its defense which tightened its grip down the stretch. The Wildcats offense which had been firing on all cylinders for the first 30 minutes was ground to a halt, after Illini assistant coach Wayne McClain instituted a full-court press.

“We started pressing and started picking it up a little, the pressure, and starting getting them out of their element a little bit,” Meacham said. “We’ll take them as it comes. It feels great to escape with one.”

“It was just one of those things where your backs up against the wall and you have to come up with a play at the end of the game, and we came up with some plays,” said senior guard Chester Frazier who finished with two points, eight assists and seven rebounds.”

With the flawed-but-thrilling road victory, Illinois (20-5, 8-4 Big Ten) gained sole possession of second place in the Big Ten and, more importantly, keeps them a key player in the race for the regular season conference championship. A home game against Michigan State remains on the schedule.

The Illini have now won 20 games in nine of the last 10 seasons. But even though Thursday’s win will be soaked in for at least a day before Illinois heads to Indiana (6-17, 1-10) on Sunday, the Illini are more concentrated on continuing the momentum of the thrilling victory. They want the chance to make noise in the postseason just as the past eight 20-plus win teams have done in the postseason.

“We found a way to win a game probably we didn’t deserve to win to be honest,” Weber said. “I hope now we use that for momentum for learning how to play. We got twenty wins, but that’s still not our goal. There’s a lot of season to go, and a lot of things can happen.”