The last time Northwestern won in Assembly Hall, Bill Clinton was president and freshman guard Dave Sobolewski was in kindergarten.
The Wildcats (14-8, 4-6 Big Ten) reversed more than a decade of bad luck in Champaign on Sunday, defeating the Fighting Illini (16-7, 5-5), 74-70, and keeping faint hopes alive of an NCAA Tournament bid.
Junior guard Reggie Hearn, who scored a career-high 20 points in the contest, said the team put extra emphasis on Sunday’s game after losing to Illinois 57-56 last month in Evanston.
“It was huge,” Hearn said. “If we had lost this game and gone to 3-7 (in Big Ten play), that would have really put us in a pretty big hole. As soon as we lost the game to Illinois at home, we kind of marked this game on our calendar and said we need to come in there and take this game from them.”
The Cats opened the game on an 18-9 run driven largely by the hot shooting of Hearn. The junior shot 6-of-6 from the floor and had 16 of his 20 points in the first half. He was one of four NU players in double figures for the game.
“I’ve been working on my shot in practice all week, been feeling pretty good,” Hearn said. “Coach (Bill Carmody) just told us in preparation for Illinois that they were going to be focusing in on Drew (Crawford) and (John Shurna) and their penetration, trying to shut them down. So the rest of us have to be ready to shoot. That’s pretty much exactly what happened, and I was able to knock down some shots.”
The Fighting Illini closed the gap late in the first, however, fueled by the hot shooting of guard Brandon Paul and the dominant inside play of center Meyers Leonard. Illinois forced two ties as the period came to a close before settling for a 3-point deficit entering halftime.
After the half, the Fighting Illini went on a run of their own, gaining the lead and bringing back memories of the last-second loss for NU at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Senior forward John Shurna, however, had other plans.
“(Illinois guard Joseph) Bertrand hit a three to put them up by 4 and it seemed to be going their way,” Carmody said. “And then John just broke the play and banged a three. And then he started taking over. From that point on I just felt like we were going to get what we wanted.”
Shurna, who had only 3 second-half points the last time the teams met, went off for 17 in the final frame this time around, keeping the Cats in the game by going 8-for-9 from the floor and knocking down clutch shots.
“We all expect that out of Johnny. We know that he can do that,” Hearn said. “Johnny’s one of the best players in the nation in my mind. For him to come out and hit the shots that he did, at a time when we really needed him, that was big for us. We hope he can continue to do that kind of thing for the rest of the year.”
With Shurna keeping NU in the game, the Cats regained the lead on an acrobatic three from Sobolewski, which put the team up by 2 points. It was a lead the Cats would not relinquish.
“Sobo hit a big three at the top, he had a nice little drive to his left and it was a tough finish and he sort of pushed through it,” Carmody said. “He’s a strong little son-of-a-gun.”
During his dominant second-half performance, Shurna passed Evan Eschmeyer for second on NU’s all-time leading scorer list. The soft-spoken senior, however, was hardly concerned with the milestone.
“I’m not even worried or focused about that,” Shurna said. “I’m just trying to help the team win.”
NU now returns home for a week of practice before taking on Iowa at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday.