Rapid Recap: No. 24 Illinois 75, Northwestern 71

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Rapid Recap: No. 24 Illinois 75, Northwestern 71

(Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman). Ryan Young takes a layup. The freshman center scored a career-high 25 points Sunday.

(Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman). Ryan Young takes a layup. The freshman center scored a career-high 25 points Sunday.

(Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman). Ryan Young takes a layup. The freshman center scored a career-high 25 points Sunday.

(Daily file photo by Joshua Hoffman). Ryan Young takes a layup. The freshman center scored a career-high 25 points Sunday.

John Riker, Assistant Sports Editor

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For a game that pitted a nationally ranked team against one that was ranked last in the Big Ten, the game was anything but lopsided early. But like it’s happened for Northwestern several times this year, the Wildcats couldn’t finish the game at the end.

Despite going on a late run, NU (6-11, 1-6 Big Ten) lost to No. 24 Illinois (13-5, 5-2) 75-71 and couldn’t get its first road Big Ten win of the year.

The rivalry became a shootout early on, though neither team could convert their hot hands into definitive leads. While NU held an advantage inside the paint, the Fighting Illini found success with mid- and long-range jumpers. In the first half, the largest lead held by either team was a mere four points, and the Cats came into the half down just 38-34.

Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu hit a shot on the Fighting Illini’s opening of the next half. But the Cats responded, hitting baskets on their first three possessions, including two straight 3-pointers by freshman forward Robbie Beran, to eliminate the deficit. Illinois threatened to open up the game multiple other times throughout the second half, but NU found a response each time, whether with Beran, sophomore forward Miller Kopp or center Ryan Young.

But the Cats couldn’t hold on forever, and a 3-pointer from Illinois big man Giorgi Bezhanishvilli with just over five minutes left gave the Fighting Illini a commanding lead. The Cats made it a one-possession game on guard AJ Turner’s corner 3-pointer with 44 seconds left.

Sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu answered with a jumper, but Kopp connected on a contested three from the corner with just seven seconds left. Dosunmu sank two free throws, and the Cats fell to 1-6 in Big Ten play.

1. Northwestern’s offense came alive.

Coming in against a team ranked in the top 25, the Wildcats were fearless. Young and graduate transfer guard Pat Spencer attacked the rim early with a couple of baskets apiece, and forwards Beran and Kopp each tallied nine points in the first half. NU was also uncharacteristically efficient, knocking down 46.4 percent of their shots with only three turnovers. The Cats didn’t tail off in the second half, either, and finished with 71 points.

2. NU largely held Illinois center Kofi Cockburn in check.

After Iowa’s Luka Garza torched the Cats’ defense for 27 points on Tuesday, the Cats would not be done in again by a big man. Cockburn converted on a single field goal in the first half and picked up just two rebounds. Offensively, the Cats matched the Fighting Illini in the post, with each side putting up 28. But the Fighting Illini used NU’s defensive focus against them, as guard Trent Frazier hit four threes and Bezhanishvilli added 13 points.

3. The Cats wouldn’t surrender.

A couple of days of rest can go a long way in the brutal weeks of Big Ten play, and NU showed energy in the second half that they’ve lacked in recent games. The Cats answered every move of the Illini with key buckets from multiple contributors and nearly came away with a road victory against their instate rival. The end result was disappointing, but NU’s composure late in the game had to be a plus.

Email: johnriker2023@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @thejohnriker

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