Men’s Basketball: Wildcats can’t complete comeback, fall short against rival Fighting Illini


Sean Su/Daiy Senior Staffer

Junior center Alex Olah posts up an Illinois defender. The Wildcats lost 72-67 to the Fighting Illini despite Olah’s 14 points and 12 rebounds.

Bobby Pillote, Assistant Sports Editor


One late-game thriller just wasn’t enough for Northwestern.

Three days removed from an overtime loss to Michigan State, the Wildcats (10-7, 1-3 Big Ten) took the Illinois Fighting Illini (12-6, 2-3) wire-to-wire but ultimately fell 72-67. The defeat is the third consecutive one for NU.

“We could easily say we should be 3-1 (in conference), but we’re not,” coach Chris Collins said. “It’s not about coming close, it’s about finding ways to win.”

Despite the loss, NU continued the offensive renaissance it experienced during regulation against the Spartans. The Cats maintained an up-tempo pace and reaped the benefits, shooting 46 percent from the floor.

After drawing some criticism for his recent play, junior center Alex Olah led the way for NU with 14 points, 12 rebounds and four assists, the latter two being team highs. The assists stick out — the offense was at its best running inside out through the post.

“We worked on (passing) a lot because there was a period I was getting double-teamed,” Olah said. “Passing out of the post, passing out on the perimeter, everything is open.”

Many of Olah’s initial feeds came from freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh, who continued to dazzle with a team-high 16 points. Collins trusted the star with many of the Cats’ crunch-time possessions late in the second half.

“The kid’s a great player,” Collins said. “I don’t know why he’s not getting mentioned as one of the best freshmen in our league … I feel good with him running my team.

Senior guard JerShon Cobb returned to the lineup after missing the second half against Michigan State but was limited, scoring just 7 points in 27 minutes played. It was fellow senior guard Dave Sobolewski who stole the spotlight off the bench, sinking back-to-back threes midway through the second half to electrify the Welsh-Ryan Arena crowd and keep NU in the game.

And beyond providing a quick injection of points, Collins also believed Sobolewski’s veteran presence had a calming effect on McIntosh down the stretch.

“I turned the ball over a couple times,” McIntosh said. “And having (Sobolewski) out there allowed me to settle down and find myself.”

But calmed or not, McIntosh and the rest of the team stifled their improved offense with a series of miscues. The Cats turned the ball over 11 times, and the Fighting Illini happily turned those chances into 14 points.

And each step forward on offense seemed to be associated with a step backward on defense. NU allowed Illinois to shoot 17 first-half 3-pointers, more than half of its 33 total attempts during that frame. The Fighting Illini’s robust 41 percent shooting from beyond arc in the first half was enough to give Illinois a 4-point halftime cushion.

“Our aggressiveness on the defensive end just wasn’t there,” Collins said. “We’re playing good teams. It needs to pick up.”

The Cats stemmed the tide from deep in the second half but still struggled to keep Illinois off the board. Fighting Illini guard Kendrick Nunn had a game-high 25 points on 8-of-13 shooting, and backcourt mate guard Aaron Cosby added 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting.

The duo had plenty of room to operate behind the arc thanks to a complete lack of defensive pressure from NU. After only recording one steal against the Spartans, the Cats had none against the Fighting Illini.

“Our hands weren’t active at all,” McIntosh said. “They threw the ball in the air anywhere they wanted on the floor.”

Illinois’ ball security resulted in the team taking 10 more shots than NU over the course of the game, which was a critical difference in the 5-point contest.

The Cats’ next game is on the road Saturday against Michigan, a tough matchup in which NU will try to stop its losing skid.

“We have to take another step forward,” McIntosh said. “It’s nice that we’ve made progress, but losing is not acceptable.”

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote