Men’s Basketball: A.J. Turner has game of the season in Big Ten Tournament loss to Illinois


Katie Pach/Daily Senior Staffer

A.J. Turner puts up a floater. The junior forward finished the game with a team-high 20 points.

Peter Warren, Web Editor

Men’s Basketball

Northwestern needed a basket. Down two points with 35 seconds remaining in the second half of Wednesday’s Big Ten Tournament first round matchup with Illinois — which the Fighting Illini would end up winning 74-69 — it was not just the game on the line. It was the Wildcats’ season. [notes]

NU’s (13-19, 4-16 Big Ten) go-to option in this situation — senior forward Vic Law — was unavailable, injured in the regular season finale and wearing a gray hoodie and black sweatpants for the game.

In his place, junior forward A.J. Turner stepped up in what coach Chris Collins called “his best game of the year.”

He brought the ball up the court and ran a pick-and-roll with senior center Dererk Pardon and Illinois (12-20, 7-13) switched, putting forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili on Turner.

“Just attack,” Turner said he thought to himself, “just attack, don’t settle.”

Turner called for an isolation, and drove hard to his left. Bezhanishvili knocked him and a foul was called. For Bezhanishvili — who had a game-high 26 points — it was foul no. 5. For Turner, it meant two free throws to tie the game.

Turner walked up to the charity stripe. He nailed the first, and then hit the second to equalize the contest.

That was not the first time the junior put the Cats on his back. Coming out of the United Center locker room for the second half, NU was down 30-27 and shooting 32.4 percent from the field. And then the Michigan native took over like he had not done in months.

“He showed the talent that he possesses. He’s a guy who can handle the ball, who can shoot the ball,” Collins said. “A.J. is going to be a key guy for us coming back.”

He assisted Pardon on the Cats first possession of the half, and then nailed a three-pointer in transition on their next trip down the court. He then canned another triple the next time NU crossed the timeline. On the fourth possession of the second half, he again assisted Pardon. On the fifth, he went strong to the basket and finished despite being opposed by some defenders. [CQ]

His outburst during those first three-plus minutes flipped the script, giving the Cats a three-point advantage.

“I didn’t want the season to end,” Turner said. “I was picking my spots, trying to be aggressive. Shots just went down.”

Turner’s impact did not stop there. He hit a few more shots in the half, finishing the game with a team-high 20 points, and added five assists and four rebounds.

Turner did this while guarding the Fighting Illini’s electric guard Ayo Dosunmu on the other side of the court. Dosunmu, a Chicago native, was held to only eight points in his return to the Windy City after scoring in double-figures in both previous matchups.

Trent Frazier, Dosunmu’s partner in the backcourt, had high-praise for NU’s leading scorer.

“Turner (did an) unbelievable job,” Frazier said. “Made some big time shots down the stretch.”

When Illinois faced NU for the first time in January, Turner drained the game-winning basket, a three-pointer with 11 seconds left.

Despite hitting the shot, the Fighting Illini’s coach Brad Underwood said after that game that Turner was not a good shooter. After Wednesday’s game, Underwood had a different tone. He said he has seen a different confidence about him over the past five games.

“We knew he would be the guy they would look to go to,” Underwood said. “He’s a terrific player and I think he did everything Chris wanted him to, which was step up for a fallen teammate.”

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