Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Men’s Basketball: Redemption: NU upsets No. 24 Illinois, evens conference series with the Illini

With the game tied and the Wildcats in need of a spark, Michael Thompson rubbed his chin.

Fourteen minutes into the second half, the senior guard signaled for Northwestern’s play ‘chin,’ which calls for a barrage of screens and backdoor cuts. Thompson raced through the key, finally ending up alone in front of the Wildcats’ bench. There, he took a toss from Davide Curletti and nailed a 3-pointer.

That long ball, and the rest of Thompson’s 11 points in the final six minutes, helped NU hold off a relentless Illinois squad. Despite several scares in the final 50 seconds, the Cats defeated the Fighting Illini by the hair on their chins, squeaking out a 71-70 victory.

“It means a lot for our team and our program,” said Thompson of NU’s first win over a ranked opponent. “This is a momentum builder.”

This wasn’t the first time the Cats ran the play ‘chin’ with the game tied against a highly-ranked opponent. One week ago against Ohio State, Thompson called the play on NU’s penultimate possession, but a turnover left the Cats with nothing to show for their impressive comeback.

Rather than killing a rally, this time ‘chin’ ignited one. After No. 24 Illinois (15-8, 5-5 Big Ten) reeled off a 12-0 run to tie the game midway through the second half, NU (14-8, 4-7) fought back, calmly connecting on four of its next six attempts from the field. Three of those four buckets were Thompson triples.

“(Thompson) was huge down the stretch tonight,” sophomore forward Drew Crawford said. “It really gets us going as a team; it gets the crowd going and really energizes us. He’s our leader, and when he’s knocking down shots, we’re playing well.”

Initially it was Crawford who was tickling the twine; his eight points in the first seven minutes helped NU jump out to an 11-point advantage. The Cats, playing the same methodical, clock-killing offense that kept them close with the Buckeyes, drained four of their first five shots from beyond the arc.

“Illinois is very good in transition,” Thompson said. “So we wanted to slow them down and try to get some good shots with about 10 seconds left on the shot clock.”

The Illini mounted a pair of comebacks at the end of each half, but neither proved sufficient. With 83 seconds left in the opening period, Illinois center Meyers Leonard slammed home a dunk over Luka Mirkovic, pulling the Illini even with the Cats. But NU took advantage of a turnover with 37 seconds left and a foul with no time remaining, converting those opportunities into four points.

At the end of the second half, Illinois had narrowed NU’s lead to five with 85 seconds remaining, but the rest of the game was decided at the charity stripe. The Cats were shooting a dreadful 4-for-8 from the line before Curletti converted his one-and-one into two points. Four different NU players went to the line in the next minute, and they made seven of their nine attempts. While junior center Luka Mirkovic missed his second try with six seconds left, his first free throw gave NU a four-point lead and rendered Brandon Paul’s last second 3-pointer insufficient.

The Cats were also fouling in an attempt to negate the Illini’s stellar 3-point shooters. Illinois came into the game leading the league with a 41 percent clip from beyond the arc.

“I’m not giving away all my secrets,” coach Bill Carmody said. “But against this team we definitely decided to foul.”

Once again Carmody started senior forward Mike Capocci ahead of Shurna, who was still recovering from a concussion he suffered against Minnesota last week. But the junior forward managed to play 28 minutes and rack up eight points.

“I really wanted to get (Shurna) back into it to get his feet wet again,” Carmody said. “We have a bunch of games coming up and I didn’t want his first game back to be on the road.”

Four of the Cats’ next six contests are away from Welsh-Ryan Arena, beginning Wednesday when NU takes on Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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Men’s Basketball: Redemption: NU upsets No. 24 Illinois, evens conference series with the Illini