Illini attack clicks in rout of Northwestern

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.

When Illinois came out and hit its first four 3-pointers of the game, one would think that Northwestern head coach Chris Collins would switch up his defensive strategy.

He did not, as the Wildcats (14-15, 5-11 Big Ten) continued to play 2-3 zone for the majority of the contest. Illinois (18-11, 8-8) continued to burn them from deep, hitting 14 threes on the evening, and the 86-60 rout was on at State Farm Center.

I’d been waiting for the light to go on for this Illini team, for everything to click offensively and translate into a blowout win in Big Ten play. It finally happened in a game Illinois couldn’t afford to lose.

The Wildcats entered the game on a four-game winning streak, fresh off a win over a solid Indiana team. Their run of good basketball ended as soon as Gene Steratore tossed the ball for the opening tip on Saturday.

With his team trailing 29-12 in the first half and under constant bombardment from Illinois threes, Collins turned to his bench in frustration.

“I can’t believe we’re playing this bad,” Collins said.

The Wildcats’ play didn’t improve much over the rest of the game, but the story in this one was about how good Illinois looked for a full 40 minutes.

The Illini’s three-headed monster of Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill and Rayvonte Rice played in sync for the first time since Rice’s return from injury on Feb. 12. Nunn finished with 14 points, Hill 15 and Rice 19, and the three of them shot a combined 47 percent from the field and were 11 of 20 from three. Ahmad Starks added 17.

They weren’t the only ones playing efficiently and effectively. Even though primary bigs Nnanna Egwu and Leron Black combined for just six points, sophomore forwards Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert came off the bench to give John Groce’s Illini a huge boost inside.

Morgan finished with 10 points and eight boards, and Colbert had five points and four rebounds in an active 15 minutes of playing time. Their positive play was highlighted by a first half sequence when Colbert dropped a sweet no-look pass inside to Morgan, who then muscled a layup in over three Northwestern defenders.

Illinois couldn’t lose to Northwestern if it wanted to keep its NCAA tournament hopes alive. The Illini are currently just outside the projected field of 68, according to ESPN, and a loss to the Wildcats would have knocked them off the bubble completely. But they came out with purpose and hunger, and that’s when this team looks its best.

Against Northwestern, the Illini showed how they could be a low-seeded team that no high seed wants to face in the tournament. When Nunn, Hill and Rice are hitting on all cylinders, Illinois is a tough matchup for anybody.

The Illini took care of business Saturday, and they’ll have to do it again on senior night Wednesday against a struggling Nebraska team. A win against the Huskers would then set up a monumental final game of the regular season against Purdue, with an NCAA tournament berth likely on the line.

Alex is a junior in AHS.

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