Men’s Basketball: Wildcats win second straight against Illinois at Assembly Hall

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Men’s Basketball: Wildcats win second straight against Illinois at Assembly Hall

Graduate student Jared Swopshire drives to the hoop. Swopshire led the Wildcats to victory against Illinois for the Cats' second straight victory in Champaign.

Graduate student Jared Swopshire drives to the hoop. Swopshire led the Wildcats to victory against Illinois for the Cats' second straight victory in Champaign.

Daily file photo by Meghan White

Graduate student Jared Swopshire drives to the hoop. Swopshire led the Wildcats to victory against Illinois for the Cats' second straight victory in Champaign.

Daily file photo by Meghan White

Daily file photo by Meghan White

Graduate student Jared Swopshire drives to the hoop. Swopshire led the Wildcats to victory against Illinois for the Cats' second straight victory in Champaign.

Ava Wallace, Assistant Sports Editor

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At the end of the first half, it seemed as though good movement was the solution to Northwestern’s offensive woes.

The Wildcats (11-7, 2-3 Big Ten) executed smart backdoor cuts, played with quick feet and did not rush their set plays against No. 23 Illinois (14-5, 1-4), which resulted in a 68-54 win for the Cats.

But as the night went on and five Wildcat players – not just senior guard Reggie Hearn this time – scored double digits, one thing became apparent.

For perhaps the first time this season, NU had a strong shooting game.

It was with a combination of accuracy and staunch defense that the Cats were able to defeat the Fighting Illini at Assembly Hall for the second year in a row, robbing Illinois coach John Groce of his 100th career win and clocking their first victory over a ranked team this season.

The contest was one of NU’s strongest offensive showings this year.

Bouncing back from a stunningly low 29 percent shooting night from the field against Iowa, NU shot 47.2 percent from the field, grabbed 17 rebounds and shot a whopping 83.9 percent from behind the foul line. The Cats’ bench also outscored the Fighting Illini’s bench 22-6.

Coach Bill Carmody likened tonight’s performance, particularly on free throw shooting, to their dominant play at the South Padre Invitational earlier this season.

“To win a game like this you have to make foul shots,” Carmody said. “It sounds like we were in Texas … we win close games that way.”

Carmody also mentioned the importance of game tempo to NU’s victory, citing the set plays that allowed his team to be much more assertive on offense than usual.

“You got all these young guys, and they see that if you run through your stuff and get it right, even if it takes 20 or 25 seconds … usually good things happen,” Carmody said.

Graduate student forward Jared Swopshire echoed his coach’s sentiments and said that setting tempo on offense also allowed his team to control transitions, a key part of the game plan. As a result, Illinois had 0 points on fast breaks. 

“We really wanted to control the tempo,” Swopshire said. “We knew that a lot of the wins Illinois had this year came out of the transition – so we didn’t want to give them the chance to get going.”

Despite a few possession flubs during the first half of the game – the Cats clocked 15 turnovers – NU led their in-state rival all night.

Hearn and Swopshire and de-facto veteran sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski, responded well to Carmody’s demand for more productive veteran leadership.

All three scored in double digits and combined for 42 points, and Hearn matched last year’s performance with another 20-point effort. 

Illinois was NU’s third road victory during the regular season, the rowdy Illinois crowd notwithstanding.

“We love playing in that atmosphere,” Hearn said. “We’ve been playing on the road all year and playing well on the road all year. (Tonight), we were running our offense with the efficiency that we’re used to running it with.”

Defensively, the Cats were able to limit the Fighting Illini’s chances and capitalized on some of Illinois’ characteristic mistakes – the Fighting Illini had 18 turnovers and missed seven of their free throws. 

For NU, Swopshire led the team with six rebounds. Freshman guard Tre Demps also came off of the bench to contribute four rebounds, a performance Carmody said stood out. 

Overall, Hearn said his team’s performance at Illinois was reflective of its ever-improving defense.

“I would hope that we’re still on that upward trajectory,” Hearn said. “I’m a pretty harsh critic, both of myself and the team, but I would give us a B+ defensively. There’s always room for improvement.”

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