Illinois falls to Northwestern after being stifled on final play

Illinois%27+head+coach+John+Groce+reacts+to+a+play+on+court+during+last+season%27s+86-80+Illini+win+over+Northwestern.+His+team+dropped+a+58-56+game+to+the+Wildcats+on+Saturday+night.
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Illinois falls to Northwestern after being stifled on final play

Illinois' head coach John Groce reacts to a play on court during last season's 86-80 Illini win over Northwestern. His team dropped a 58-56 game to the Wildcats on Saturday night.

Illinois' head coach John Groce reacts to a play on court during last season's 86-80 Illini win over Northwestern. His team dropped a 58-56 game to the Wildcats on Saturday night.

Illinois' head coach John Groce reacts to a play on court during last season's 86-80 Illini win over Northwestern. His team dropped a 58-56 game to the Wildcats on Saturday night.

Illinois' head coach John Groce reacts to a play on court during last season's 86-80 Illini win over Northwestern. His team dropped a 58-56 game to the Wildcats on Saturday night.

By Alex Roux

There was a second half full of runs in Saturday night’s nail-biter between Illinois and Northwestern, and the Wildcats had the last one.

More specifically, Northwestern’s Tre Demps had the last run all by himself.

Demps nailed four straight 3-pointers in the second half of his team’s 58-56 win over Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena before his layup in the final minute gave the Wildcats just enough cushion to escape the Illini at home.

Demps, a senior, was the hero Saturday night, but Illinois’ Malcolm Hill almost wore the cape in crunch time. After a Kendrick Nunn three brought the Illini to within 58-56 with under a minute to play, Hill had the ball in his hands following an empty Northwestern possession.

In the game’s final seconds, Hill shook off Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh at the elbow and drained what would have been a game-tying pull-up jumper. But referee Gene Steratore signaled a non-shooting foul on McIntosh, and with the Wildcats one foul under the bonus, the Illini had to scrape together an inbounds play with zero timeouts remaining.

It didn’t go well.

Illinois head coach John Groce turned to Hill for the last shot again, but the Illini’s leading scorer never got it off. He was hounded on the perimeter after the inbounds lob found him at the top of the key, and Illinois lost its eighth Big Ten game of the season without getting a final look at the basket.

The Illini fell to 11-14 and 3-8 in conference play with the loss, and Northwestern improved to 17-9 and 5-8 in the Big Ten.

“We’ve got to get one on the rim,” Groce said of the game’s last play. “That’s the bottom line.”

It was a thrilling ending in Evanston, and the home crowd let out its loudest roar of the night when the final buzzer cemented Northwestern’s first win over Illinois in two years. About a third of the Welsh-Ryan arena contingent was wearing Illinois orange, and they witnessed the Illini’s latest disappointment in a season full of letdowns.

Northwestern is certainly improved under Chris Collins, and you could tell the third-year head coach had his team fired up to play its in-state rival Saturday. 

Wildcats center Alex Olah yelled like a man possessed following both of his and-one finishes in the first half, and Demps drove as hard to the rim as I’ve ever seen anyone attack the basket on Northwestern’s final bucket of the game. 

Demps finished tied for a team-high 18 points with sophomore Scottie Lindsey, whose personal 8-0 run sparked the back-and-forth second half action.

Illinois matched that intensity at times, but their execution in the half-court was lacking.

The Illini shot just 36 percent from the field, and Nunn and Hill — their two best players — combined for just 20 points. That’s well below their combined average of over 35 per game. Only Illinois’ 10 3-pointers on 40 percent shooting really kept them in the game.

For the second game in a row, the most encouraging contributions came from D.J. Williams, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Maverick Morgan. 

The freshman Williams followed up his career-best showing against Iowa with another six points and three rebounds, and his fellow freshman Coleman-Lands reached double figures for the fourth time in five games with 12 points. Morgan turned in another solid performance down low with 12 points and seven rebounds.

Also for the second game in a row, Illinois’ negatives far out-weighed the positives. Northwestern is a beatable team, even with the Illini’s injured bench mob going four-deep, nearly stretching into the tunnel at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Illinois has at least as much talent as the Wildcats — probably more.

But the Illini stuck to this season’s grisly script as the game wound down, and the came up short yet again.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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@aroux94