Illini take fight out of Cats with early run (Men’s Basketball)

Nicholas Collins

CHICAGO — An 18-point deficit 10 minutes into Saturday’s game against No. 20 Illinois gave Northwestern another chance to showcase its comeback abilities. For the second-consecutive game, the Wildcats clawed their way out of an early hole but fell 73-61 — the same tally as Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota.

But this time around, NU coach Bill Carmody had nothing but praise for his team.

“I liked our effort throughout the whole game,” Carmody said. “I don’t know if we dug ourselves a hole in the first half as much as they put us there. Maybe the defense was bad, but they didn’t seem to miss any shots.”

Playing in front of a partisan crowd at the United Center, the Fighting Illini (18-5, 8-4 Big Ten) connected on 11 of their first 12 shots and went on to build a 31-13 lead.

Sophomore Roger Powell paced Illinois, notching 16 points on 6-for-6 shooting in the first half en route to a career-high 20 points, which led all scorers.

“Against Minnesota we were down because we played poorly,” Carmody said. “And the way we got back was haphazard and crazy. But (Saturday’s game) was more controlled.”

The Cats (10-14, 2-11) staved off annihilation in the first half, thanks to nine points from both of their freshmen guards.

T.J. Parker scored seven of NU’s first eight points on two treys and a free throw. Following a media timeout, Mohamed Hachad scored eight straight points for the Cats on another pair of 3-pointers and a fast-break layup.

Senior Jason Burke scored a season-high 15 points, including a thunderous catch-and-slam offensive rebound. It was his fourth consecutive game in double figures.

“Today it was more of a solid comeback with better execution,” Carmody said. “And our defensive effort was substantial.”

The Cats’ defense held the Illini to 39 percent shooting in the second half, and gave up just 16 points in the first 16 minutes after the break.

“We just didn’t keep our foot down and we let up a little,” Illinois senior Brian Cook said. “Northwestern played their butts off, you have to give them credit.”

Senior Aaron Jennings cut the lead to five with a 3-pointer, but four missed shots and two turnovers by the Cats on their next six possessions saved the Illini from too much worry.

Cook regained control when sophomore Nick Smith found him down low with 3:53 remaining. Cook’s left-handed scoop resulted in a three-point play after Jennings fouled him.

Cook, who stands 6-foot-10, recorded 17 points, but Carmody was happy with Burke’s defense on the Big Ten’s leading scorer.

“Cook is a hard guy for anybody to handle,” Carmody said. “And Jason, they say he’s 6-foot-8 but he’s really about 6-foot-6. I thought he battled pretty hard in there.”

Carmody noted that senior forward Winston Blake also held his own on defense despite being forced to the post after Jennings fouled out.

But Blake was a no-show on offense, scoring two points on seven shots. Although the senior has said the ankle he hurt Nov. 27 is back to 100 percent, he seemed to have trouble getting off the floor on one 3-point attempt.

“He’s alright,” said Burke, Blake’s roommate. “He’s had a little bit of a lingering injury but he goes in for regular treatment and things check out.”

Despite losing, Burke said it was a plus to play in front of 15,429 people at the same venue where the Big Ten tournament will be held.

“We play here in a couple weeks, so to come in here and show we can stick around and fight is great,” Burke said. “Even though we lost, we know if we come in and play as hard as this, we can play with anyone in the league.”