For 17 minutes Northwestern made it a game.
Sarah Kwasinski, Ifeoma Okonkwo and Sara Stutz provided all the offense the Wildcats needed in the first half. No. 10-seed NU (5-25, 2-14 Big Ten) didn’t trail against No. 7-seed Illinois until the last minute of the first half in Indianapolis, Ind., at Conseco Fieldhouse. But then the Cats collapsed, falling 66-43 and making a first-round exit in the Big Ten tournament for the fifth consecutive year.
"I thought after the first half we were going to make a game of it," coach Beth Combs said. "But they just revved up their defensive intensity and we couldn’t answer."
Combs said she knew NU couldn’t overcome a growing deficit as Illinois built a lead five minutes into the second half.
NU hasn’t advanced to the second round of the conference tournament since its 2000 upset against Iowa.
In Thursday’s game Illinois (17-11, 7-9) ran away with the game before the intermission and continued to shut out NU after the break. The Illini buried the Cats with a 16-0 run and never relented. The Illini controlled the game the entire second half and held NU to 23 percent shooting from the field, down 14 percent from the first half.
NU’s shooting touch disappeared in the second half, when the team converted just 7 of 30, as the Illini continued to heat up.
Illinois Guard Angelina Williams, a First-Team All-Big Ten selection this season, did most of the damage.
"(She) just went on fire," Kwasinski said. "We couldn’t respond."
Williams finished with a game-high 20 points, and had eight rebounds and five steals.
"She’s huge for that team, she does everything," Combs said. "She not only scores, she knows how to take over a game."
NU nearly matched its meager offensive performance in a loss to Illinois on Feb. 16, when the team managed only 12 first-half points. In Thursday’s game, the Cats scored 19 points in the second half.
Kwasinski led the Cats with 14 points and seven rebounds. Her performance off the boards made her the 10th-leading rebounder in team history.
"They got a little physical with her and pushed her around a bit, but I hope she looks back on this game and realizes that she did all she could," Combs said.
Combs also credited senior point guard Samantha McComb for keeping the Cats alive in the first half.
"She’s been the heart of this program all year," Combs said.
"This team goes with Sam. I’ve never seen or worked with a player with more heart than Sam McComb."
But the team said it needed more than heart to keep pace with an Illini squad that swept them in two regular season meetings.
"We were really optimistic going in, we knew the game plan, they just went on some runs and we couldn’t respond," Kwasinski said. "It was a good one to go out in because everyone played hard and that’s all you can really ask. We left everything out on the court."
Reach Nina Mandell at [email protected]