Men’s Basketball: Illinois pressures, traps NU in heartbreaker

Matt Forman

Each of the last 17 games between Northwestern and Illinois were decided by 10 points or more.

It looked like Thursday’s game would follow the same script. The Wildcats held a 14-point advantage with 5:16 remaining in the contest.

That’s when the Cats fell into a trap. Literally.

“The pressure and the press is what did us in,” junior forward Kevin Coble said.

NU (13-9, 4-7 Big Ten) had been on the wrong side of 16 of those disappointing blowout wins. But this one hurt even more.

After freshman forward Luka Mirkovic made a lefty layup with just over five minutes remaining, the Cats scored only one basket the rest of the way. The Illini (20-5, 8-4) finished on a 17-2 run to top the Cats in heartbreaking fashion, 60-59.

Illinois assistant coach Wayne McClain drew up a full court zone press with three defenders keying on NU senior guard Craig Moore during a timeout.

“We don’t really practice it, we just have some good athletes,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “We just wanted to make them make a play.”

And NU didn’t.

“We became the aggressor and they became tentative,” Weber added.

After Mike Davis hit a jumper in the lane with 4:56 left, sophomore Michael Thompson attempted to inbound the ball to Moore. Illinois guard Trent Meacham intercepted Thompson’s entry pass and converted it into a layup.

On the Cats’ ensuing possession, Coble missed a 3-pointer from the right corner, and Moore fouled Demetri McCamey, who made the front end of his one-and-one.

After Moore missed a 3-pointer from the right wing, Meacham hit a 2-pointer in front of the Illinois bench in transition, bringing the game within seven with 3:42 remaining.

Coble converted his trademark, turnaround jumper with 2:22 left to re-extend the lead to nine. But the Cats didn’t score the rest of the game.

“Our veterans didn’t really handle it,” coach Bill Carmody said. “We got into traps and just threw the ball around carelessly, and that gave them the life to keep going.”

Meacham hit another layup on a dribble penetration and converted the free throw after being fouled by Coble on the play. That basket closed the gap to six.

After barely getting the ball over half-court with two minutes remaining, Carmody drew up a play for junior Jeremy Nash. Although he broke free from Illini defenders, Nash was blocked by Calvin Brock en route to the hoop.

On its next possession, Illinois missed a jump shot. When Moore accepted the entry pass from Thompson, he ran into a trap. McCamey forced a jump ball, and the possession arrow gave the visitors the ball with 1:07 left.

Meacham hit another long-distance shot with one minute left to make the score 59-56.

Moore was stripped again as three defenders crashed toward him. Meacham converted a layup with 42.6 seconds on the clock.

“The press wasn’t anything that should have bothered us the way they were running it,” Coble said. “They ran three guys at one. We should have been able to handle it and get it across half-court, but we didn’t get to that point.”

While the Cats were able to get the ball over half-court on their next possession, this time Thompson was blocked by Brock, and the ball bounced off his body and went out of bounds.

Down one, Illinois settled for the final shot with 14.6 seconds remaining.

McCamey hit a running bank shot in the lane with 2.9 seconds left, the final dagger in a series of execution errors for NU.

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