"Thinking of getting my first Big Ten win, I never thought my team would only have 49 points."
Chris Collins summed up the night perfectly during his post game press conference. Perhaps his comments weren't as dramatic as the 49-43 win over the 23rd-ranked Illini was, but Collins and the Wildcats will certainly take it as their first win of the conference portion of the schedule, a shocking upset, albeit in low-scoring fashion.
Combining strong defense with a nightmarish shooting night for the Illini, the Cats bounced back from three blowout losses to open Big Ten play with a huge win at home inside Welsh-Ryan Arena.
This year's only regularly scheduled matchup between the in-state rivals started in a shockingly low-scoring fashion. Both teams shot poorly in a first half that ended in a 22-15 Northwestern advantage. The Illini shot 6-for-31 in the opening 20 minutes, scoring 10 points fewer than their 25-point first-half output against Wisconsin in Wednesday's blowout loss. And the second half started even slower, with the teams combining for five points through the half's first six minutes.
That changed, slightly, when Illinois forward Jon Ekey slammed home an alley-oop feed to bring the largely pro-Illini crowd to life and spark an 8-0 run that tied the game at 27 midway through the second half. But, bucking a season-long trend, Northwestern answered on its home court. The Cats came back with a 5-0 run of their own, led by a barrage of 3-pointers from guard Tre Demps. When Demps was done splashing home three triples in a row, Northwestern led by seven.
"It was huge because we haven't been doing that," Collins said after the game. "We've been playing really well, we've been hanging with teams, and then when they turn the heat up on us we've kind of folded. And we've talked about that. We've shown film, we've talked about different stretches of games where you have to get tough. And they hit those two 3's, they got a steal, got the layup, they're getting excited. ... We responded right away, and I thought it showed a lot about our guys because it's been something we've been struggling with the last couple games."
The final minute was a frantic finish, as the Illini cut it to a five-point game ahead of three terrible Northwestern turnovers. Rayvonte Rice — the Big Ten's leading scorer who had an abysmal 2-for-11 shooting night — eventually knocked down a 3-pointer to make it a two-point game with 15 seconds left. But Northwestern's Drew Crawford hit four free throws to put an end to the comeback hopes.
Critics will say the game was poorly played, thanks to a severely low score and poor shooting all around — the Illini finished at 28.1 percent, while the Cats shot just 37.2 percent from the field — but Northwestern's defense was stupendous, earning rave reviews from the opposing coach.
"I think, in part, certainly we have some things we've got to get better at on that end, but at the same time let's give them a lot of credit. I thought they played really well on the defensive end and made it really difficult to score," Illini head coach John Groce said after the game.
Collins also praised the defensive effort, and he praised his team's overall attitude despite their own offensive woes at times.
"Our guys played with incredible energy and spirit tonight, and it's hard to do that when you have a hard time scoring," Collins said. "That's what's so incredible about it, to stay that hungry and to keep playing that hard when maybe you don't score for four minutes or you miss a couple free throws. It shows the character that our guys have."
The win is monumental for Northwestern, a team that looked to be steamrolling toward an extremely unsuccessful Big Ten campaign. But the bounce-back performance — Collins' first Big Ten win as the Cats head coach — raises plenty of eyebrows. The Ctas move to 1-3 in the conference with the victory.
For the Illini, a loss to Northwestern is about as bad a follow-up performance from a blowout loss at Wisconsin as could have been imagined. There were still plenty of chances to escape Evanston with a win, even in the game's closing seconds, but the lid on the basket that plagued them throughout the contest never fully came off. And because of it, the Illini see their conference record evened at 2-2 and will likely watch their top-25 ranking disappear.
Groce pointed to aggressiveness, though Northwestern's defensive effort made every Illini attempt a contested one. Still, the coach feels there's plenty to improve on following a second straight disappointing performance.
"You can't miss layups and tip dunks. We've got to convert some of those, and we didn't convert nearly enough of those. So it's two games in a row where we've been great on the glass, beat the opponent on the glass, taking good care of the ball. But offensively, we've got to be better. We've got to step up and make some plays," Groce said. "We've got to figure out, as a staff, how to put them in position better, and then they've got to step up and make some plays and be a lot more aggressive than we are right now.
"Our offense was not good enough."
Make it two coaches who hit the nail right on the head.