Men’s Basketball: Northwestern finds shooting stroke too late, falls to Illinois, 57-56

Dan Ryan

When Drew Crawford let his shot go as time expired, it was easy, for a moment, to forget the previous 20 minutes of basketball.

The moment did not last long.

Illinois center Meyers Leonard denied the junior forward’s game-winning attempt, and Northwestern (11-4, 1-2 Big Ten) was left wondering how it let Illinois (13-3, 2-1 Big Ten) slip past them to steal a 57-56 victory.

“Coach wanted us to push it up the court,” Crawford said. “I tried to get to the basket. I probably should have gone all the way, but I stopped short. It was a good block.”

The Wildcats opened the game looking like a complete team, driving to the basket and taking advantage of Illinois turnovers. Senior forward John Shurna had 17 points as NU ran out to a ten-point lead on their Big Ten archrivals.

With a minute left in the first period, however, the tempo changed.

“We had really good looks in the first half,” coach Bill Carmody said. “We had about a seven-or-eight-point lead with about a minute and a half to go, and they hit a three and learned how to dunk.”

Illinois cut the lead in half thanks to two NU turnovers, leaving the first half down 36-31.

And then the Cats went cold.

NU scored only three points in the first nine minutes of the second period, allowing Illinois to take the lead.

“In the second half, they really clamped down on us,” Carmody said. “We weren’t able to score. They did a very good job defensively, and we just weren’t able to get on track. You have to give them credit for that second half defense.”

The result of the Cats’ cold stretch was an 18-3 Illinois run as the Illini pushed their lead to eight with one minute and 43 seconds left in regulation.

“We missed some easy ones in there,” Carmody said. “Luka (Mirkovic) missed some easy ones in there. But the pressure on the perimeter guys was as much a factor as one-on-one in the post.”

Down 55-48, NU suddenly found its stroke again. Shurna and junior guard Alex Marcotullio hit back-to-back threes to pull NU within one. After Leonard hit one of his two free throws for the Illini, Crawford tipped in a missed three-pointer with 15 seconds remaining to make the Cats an unlikely comeback story.

On the ensuing Illinois possession, however, guard Brandon Paul made an aggressive move to the basket, knocking over Crawford in his layup attempt. The referees called a foul – on freshman guard Dave Sobolewski on the rebound.

“I couldn’t tell (if it was a charge),” Carmody said. “All the Northwestern people at the end told me it was a charge, but I can’t see.”

Myke Henry made one of his two free throws, enough to preserve the Illini victory after Crawford’s runner was denied at the buzzer.

NU has a week to regroup after the loss, its third in four games, before traveling to Michigan to take on the Wolverines on Wednesday in a key game for the Cats’ NCAA hopes.

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