CHAMPAIGN, Ill. Theres no place like the road for Northwestern.
The Wildcats kept up their impressive play away from home, taking a 68-54 win from No. 23 Illinois in Champaign on Thursday night. The win was Northwesterns fifth outside Welsh-Ryan Arena this season, but just its first against a ranked opponent.
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody was at a loss to explain his teams road prowess, however. When asked why his team did so well away from home he could only shrug.
I have no idea, he said. A good start on the road is usually importantwe played one of our better games this year and we had to to beat these guys here. Our defense was solid and we made shots.
Reggie Hearn came up big for the visitors, scoring 20 in the win. The senior guard is still not at 100 percent after spraining his ankle over the winter break, Carmody commented, but his effort buoyed the Wildcats against Illinois.
Hearns been having a very good year despite being injured, Carmody said. Hes still not really back, but he set the tone and let everyone know, Come on fellas, lets go.
Hearn was one of five Wildcats who reached double figures in scoring on Thursday, joined by Jared Swopshire and Alex Marcotullio, who each scored 12, as well as Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps, who scored 10 apiece.
As in its loss to Wisconsin last Saturday, Illinois (14-5, 1-4) let its opposing number get out to an early lead. Northwestern found ample space between Illini defenders early the game and made the most of its opportunities.
The Wildcats went the first eight minutes of the game without missing a three point shot, making four during that span and taking an 18-11 lead over the hosts. Hearn had the hot hand for Northwestern, scoring eight in the first eight minutes, including two from behind the arc.
The first 10 minutes they were a juggernaut, Illinois coach John Groce said. We werent as locked in as we needed to be and they made us pay.
The Illini defense struggled all through the first half and the offense fared little better. From 12:08 to 6:33 the hosts turned the ball over six times in a span of eight possessions. The sloppy offense from Illinois helped Northwestern grab a 28-14 lead with 5:12 left in the first half.
An old-fashioned three-point play from Tyler Griffey, a converted and-one, looked like it might swing the momentum in Illinois direction. Alex Olah and Alex Marcotullio kept momentum with the Wildcats by scoring back-to-back layups, however. Layups continued to come easy for Northwestern, and an easy basket by Kale Abrahamson with three minutes left put NU ahead 34-19 and drew boos from the home fans.
The Illini were able to hold on to the ball for the final shot of the first half, but nothing would break their way. A last-second floater from Tracy Abrams and a put back attempt from Sam McLaurin glanced off the rim, and the buzzer went off with Northwestern holding a commanding lead, 36-21.
Illinois came out of the gates hot in the second half, stripping the ball from the Wildcats three times in the first four minutes. On the offensive end the Illini made the most of those turnovers, going on a 7-2 run in the first three minutes. McLaurin hit a pair of layups and Brandon Paul drained a three to pull the hosts within 10 again, 38-28.
It did not take long for Northwestern to stem the Illini run, however. Back-to-back threes from Swopshire and Marcotullio kept the hosts at bay, putting the Cats in front 45-30 with 12 minutes to play.
The Illini continued to play with vigor, which extended to Groce, who was given a technical for speaking his mind a bit too vigorously. Small errors, like unforced turnovers from McLaurin and Abrams, kept Illinois from mounting a serious comeback. Northwestern made just three field goals in the first 12 minutes of the second half, but managed to hold a 15-point lead, 48-33, at the under-eight media timeout.
The Wildcats lead would dip below 10 twice before games end. The second time, coming with three minutes to play, would quickly be erased by an and-1 from Swopshire, putting NU ahead 53-14 and sending fans in Champaign streaming toward the exits.
Paul, who had a game high 21 points, made a few pretty dunks for Illinois in the final minute of play, but they went for naught as Northwestern blew out the hosts. Groce was happy with his teams second-half play, but was disappointed he did not see the same effort for all 40 minutes.
I appreciate our guys effort in the second half, I thought we played a lot harder, he said. By the second we were trying to dig ourselves out of a hole. We gotta coach better, we gotta play better.