Illini avoid early exit with OT win over Wildcats in first round of Big Ten Tournament


Austin Yattoni

Illinois forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili (left) celebrates with guard Andres Feliz (right) during the game against Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center on Wednesday. The Illini won 74-69, keeping them in the tournament.

By Gavin Good, Staff Writer

Sometimes the margin between victory and defeat is as slim as a single possession or the bounce of the basketball.

With the No. 11-seed Illini down one to the No. 14 Northwestern Wildcats and with three minutes to go in overtime, junior guard Andres Feliz drove frantically into the paint, nearly losing the ball to a pair of Northwestern defenders.

But Feliz recovered the ball as it was nearly stripped and shoveled it into the waiting hands of an open Trent Frazier in the corner, who nailed a pull-up 3-pointer to give Illinois a 68-66 lead it wouldn’t surrender.

The next time down, freshman Ayo Dosunmu hit a three from the other side and the Illini held on for a 74-69 win which kept their season alive — at least for one more day.

After the game, head coach Brad Underwood admitted it wasn’t his team’s best performance, though he maintained he was happy with the group’s effort.

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“Really, really proud of our team tonight,” Underwood said. “There were a lot of things that didn’t go particularly well throughout the course of the ballgame and yet we kept just hanging in.”

Illinois led for most of the game, taking a slim 30-27 lead into the break, but Northwestern came out clicking to open the second period.

The Wildcats connected on seven of their first eight field goal attempts to open the half. Northwestern took until the 17:51 mark in the second half to take its first lead, at 35-34, on an A.J. Turner 3-pointer.

It was Turner who Northwestern relied on heavily to replace some of the production from senior and leading scorer Vic Law (averaging 15 points per game), who missed the contest after injuring his shin against Purdue on Sunday.

The 6-foot-7-inch junior exploded to start the second half after going 2-of-6 in the first, hitting four straight shots to propel Northwestern into the lead. Turner finished the game on a much cooler stretch though, finishing with 20 points on 7-of-17 (3-of-9 3FG) shooting, five assists and four rebounds.

The Illini had answers for the Wildcat’s advances, turning to Giorgi Bezhanishvili down low and Frazier in the backcourt.

Bezhanishvili put up 26 points on efficient 12-of-15 shooting clip to go with four rebounds and two steals, including a coast-to-coast steal and lay-in on the other end.

Underwood said it had been a goal for Illinois’ big man to make up for the last game, where he and Underwood felt he was outplayed by Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon.

On Wednesday night, Pardon still scored 17 points but it took him a 6-of-12 shooting mark to do so, and Bezhanishvili was all over him on the offensive end.

“(Last time) Pardon really had his number,” Underwood said. “He’s taken that challenge himself. Pardon’s an elite defender and he got to his spots. He got a little frustrated early because he got knocked off his spots a couple times, but we did a great job getting him the ball. His maturity has changed the most from day one.”

Without Law on the court, Northwestern missed its lead producer in minutes played (33.4 per game), assists (3 per game) and its second-best rebounder (6.4 rebounds per game) and 3-point shooter (33.5 percent on the year).

Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said Law would have had a significant impact on the game, but added his team missed production, especially in overtime.

“It hurt, especially against this team, the way they get after you, their quickness,” Collins said. “I thought it really showed up in the overtime because they really spread the floor. Everybody was a little tired. I had one less defender out there than I needed and that’s not knocking the guys that we had on the floor. But normally if I have Turner, (Anthony) Gaines and Law, those three guys can match up with Frazier, Ayo and Feliz.”

Though he started slow, shooting 2-of-5 for five points in the first half, Frazier finished with 21 points in nearly 41 minutes of action.

He went 3-of-5 from beyond the arc, including the shot which gave Illinois its overtime lead, and added four rebounds.

After a string of games in which Frazier will admit he hadn’t been at his best, it was a promising sign for the Wellington, Florida, native.

“I kind of let the game come to me,” Frazier said. “I didn’t want to force any shots. Just play my game, do what I do. Like I said: The team, they trust me down the stretch to make a play for myself and my teammates. That’s what I did. These younger guys, they’re incredible.”

Underwood was proud of his guard’s composure on the ball, as well as in the big moments.

“Trent, I’m really proud of him,” Underwood said. “His floor game, no turnovers, 40-plus minutes and then obviously a couple big shots down the stretch.”

Illinois also benefitted from Feliz’s first-ever double-double, as the junior put up 11 points on 4-of-9 shooting to go along with a team-high 10 rebounds.

With the win, Illinois moves on to play No. 6-seed Iowa in the nightcap Friday at 8:30 p.m.

The Hawkeyes, like the Wildcats, aren’t in good form, having lost five of their last six heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

“(Short rest) doesn’t matter, it’s been done before,” Underwood said. “I think (University of Connecticut) won five in a row (in the Big East Tournament). It doesn’t matter. It’s just about the next (game). You take every game for its face value and you don’t look beyond.”

Illinois won’t spend time analyzing film or breaking down much about the game on Wednesday night.

It’s all about Iowa on a less-than-24-hour turnaround.

“I won’t spend two seconds really tonight looking backwards,” Underwood said. “You don’t have time and it’s on to the next. It’s really that simple for me.”


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