Northwestern scrapes out an ugly 49-43 win over Illinois

EVANSTON, Ill. — In a game that was begging for someone to step up, it was Northwestern’s Tre Demps who sunk Illinois with a trio of late threes in a 49-43 win on Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The sophomore hit three shots from behind the arc in a three-minute span to give Northwestern a seven-point advantage in what was an eyesore of a game for both offenses.

The loss was Illinois’ second this week after winning four in a row and reaching the Top 25 for the first time this season. Illinois shot 28.1 percent from the field as the Wildcats (8-9, 1-3 Big Ten) beat the Illini (13-4, 2-2) in the two teams’ only matchup this season.

Many of Illinois’ 46 missed shots were halfway down before caroming out, including several point-blank layups or dunks. Afterward, head coach John Groce was at a loss for why his team played, in his words,  “tentative” on offense.

“I’ve never taken a guy out for missing a shot in six years (as a head coach),” Groce said. “They should be loose. We’ve always let it rip.”

It would appear that the Illini did let it rip, but the shots wouldn’t fall. Illinois’ 64 shot attempts were the fourth most its attempted without the aid of overtime, yet its 18 made field goals was the lowest total of the season.

Sometimes it simply comes down to putting the ball in the basket.

The Illini went into halftime at a 22-15 disadvantage, the lowest scoring half of the Groce era at Illinois. The teams shot a combined 14-for-54 in the half — Illinois 6-for-31, Northwestern 8-for-23. It was Illinois’ lowest scoring half since putting 15 on the board in the first half of a 38-33 loss to Penn State in 2009.

That game was historically ugly. This game was merely ugly.

Despite the score, there were only a combined seven turnovers in the half. Illinois went 0-for-8 from 3-point range and finished the game 4-for-19 from beyond the arc. The Illini scored only nine points in the half’s final 16:08 of play.

A 10-2 Illinois run midway through the second half brought the Illini, and a heavily orange-clad crowd, back to life. Sparked by an alley-oop dunk from Joseph Bertrand to Jon Ekey, the Illini evened the game at 27-27 with 11:33 to play. Ekey and point guard Tracy Abrams hit threes during the run and Kendrick Nunn added a fast-break layup, Illinois only fast break points of the night.

Northwestern responded with a 5-0 run of its own, which in a slugfest like Sunday’s game constituted a legitimate swing. Illinois answered, tying the game at 34 apiece and even taking its only second half lead after a Nunn three.

But Demps matched Nunn’s long-range shot and upped the ante with two more of his own. Northwestern held the Big Ten’s leading scorer Rayvonte Rice to eight points.

If there was one thing Groce was happy with, it was Illinois’ defense. The Wildcats shot 37.2 percent for the game. In every other game since Groce became the head coach at Illinois, holding the opponent to 49 points would have been enough for a win.

It wasn’t Sunday.

“To be honest, I’m not as worried because it’s making shots,” Abrams said. “It’s not something we can’t do. I think it’s more physical than it is mental.”

Abrams was Illinois’ only double-digit scorer, putting in 13 points. Northwestern’s Drew Crawford equaled him with 13 as the Wildcats’ leading scorer. But it was Demps’ threes that swung the game.

When Groce and his staff go back to look at the tape, they’ll see that Illinois just didn’t get it done offensively. His players already know that.

“We couldn’t make any shots,” said center Nnanna Egwu, who had six points and seven rebounds. 

“We’ve got to finish plays,” Abrams said. “It’s that simple.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.