Illinois men’s basketball ignites against Northwestern in season sweep

Illinois+Malcolm+Hill+%2821%29+calls+out+the+play+during+the+game+against+Northwestern+at+State+Farm+Center+on+Tuesday%2C+February+21.

Austin Yattoni

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (21) calls out the play during the game against Northwestern at State Farm Center on Tuesday, February 21.

By Matt Gertsmeier, Illini hoops columnist

This year, Northwestern might finally get a seed in the NCAA Tournament.

But, Illinois has the Wildcats’ number this season. The Illini completed their series sweep with Northwestern and won back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time in two years.

To add insult to injury, Illinois led the game for 38 minutes while Northwestern’s longest lead of the night lasted 12 seconds.

From the tip, this game felt like it was going to go Illinois’ way. With two home games left on the season and in-state rival Northwestern in town, this game seemed destined to go the Illini’s way.

This was by far the most fired up I’ve seen Illinois all year. The players were energized, head coach John Groce was much more animated than usual and the crowd fed off the energy.

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    After the ups and lot more downs this year, it’s nice to see Illinois starting to spark.

    It certainly took them long enough.

    The Illini were ignited to start the game by sophomore Leron Black. The forward came out of the gates firing with seven points by the under-16 media timeout in the first half.

    Black has gone somewhat under the radar in conference games this season for Illinois. He’s only averaging about six points and five rebounds per game despite starting in all 14 so far. Tonight, Black finished his night with 11 points and eight rebounds.

    I think it’s safe to say Black is one of the most outspoken and enthusiastic players on the Illini roster. Heck, he himself says he models his game off of Kevin Garnett. Without Black’s pursuit to start the game off, I don’t know if this column would be written about the same 66-50 Illinois win tonight.

    Black’s tenacity kept Illinois in the game in the first half while leading scorer Malcolm Hill had a quite five points in the first half. Hill eventually got fire in the second and finished with 18 for the game.

    Illinois’ freshmen Te’Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols combined for 17 points and three steals.

    I feel like a broken record, but it’s true. Illinois’ freshman continue to amaze. Lucas was bringing it against junior guard Bryant McIntosh. Lucas’ on the ball defense looked suffocating and it definitely fatigued McIntosh, who shot 35 percent from the field.

    Nichols finished the night with three blocks.

    Before Tuesday’s game I said it was going to take another strong defensive effort for Illinois to come away with a win. That was exactly the case.

    Illinois was aggressive on the defensive end out of the gates . The Illini got into passing lanes and disrupted shots. Northwestern shot 32 percent from the field and 22 percent from three-point distance.

    Illinois also did a solid job of keeping Northwestern’s scorers in check. Wildcat guards Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law Jr. are Northwestern’s No. 1 and No. 3 scorers, respectively. Tonight the two combined for five points and 1-15 from the field.

    Lindsey seems to be trying to find his groove after missing four games with mono, but still, this was really encouraging to see. Both Lindsey and Law Jr. couldn’t buy a bucket.

    One of the most interesting plays of the game didn’t involve a bucket, steal, block, or foul. It was instead a timeout.

    With a little over eight minutes left, Groce called a timeout immediately after a Tracy Abrams three-point to put Illinois up by seven. It might have been the loudest State Farm Center was all night.

    The full timeout resulted in a substantial loss in volume from the crowd, but it worked. Groce claimed the timeout was not a result of Illinois’ momentum, but rather to get the players some rest.

    A few weeks ago against Penn State Groce decided not to call a timeout after the Illini got on a 14-0 run. After the break, Penn State pushed through and came out with the win. Looking back Groce said he wished he hadn’t called the timeout.

    Despite Groce’s claim that tonight’s timeout was to conserve energy, I think it was also a great move to allow Illinois to catch a break and continue its run in the final minutes of the game.

    Tonight may not dictate any postseason moves for Illinois, but it was real nice to see the Wildcats go 0-2 against the Illini.

     Matt is a Junior in Business.

    [email protected]

    @MattGertsmeier