Men’s Basketball: Northwestern falls short against No. 24 Illinois at sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena


Joanne Haner

Boo Buie dribbles the ball. Buie had nine points in Northwestern’s 59-56 loss to No. 24 Illinois.

Patrick Andres, Sports Editor

The greater college basketball world may hesitate to call Illinois-Northwestern — a series in which one team has won 143 of 185 meetings — a “rivalry” in the traditional sense.

But on Saturday afternoon in Evanston, no word seemed more appropriate.

In an electric, bipartisan Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Wildcats (9-10, 2-8) fell 59-56 to the Fighting Illini (15-5, 8-2) before their first sellout home crowd in two years. Star Illinois center Kofi Cockburn led both teams with 22 points, although he had to take 17 shots to get them.

“(Illinois fans are) always gonna have a nice turnout here,” coach Chris Collins said. “It made for just a great atmosphere. I so appreciate it, and I hope our students will keep coming out even though we’ve come up short.”

Cockburn accounted for much of the Fighting Illini’s offensive output as several of their key contributors struggled. Guard Trent Frazier, serenaded on nearly every touch by chants of “airball” after a pair of early misses, made just two of his 10 field goal attempts and turned the ball over three times. Two other starters, guard-forward Jacob Grandison and guard Alfonso Plummer, also combined to make three of their 12 field goal attempts.

Neither team could land a knockout punch until late, although NU led by as many as six points with 8:09 to play. Illinois tied it on two free throws from guard Da’Monte Williams a little over four minutes later, and a Cockburn layup with 2:25 left re-tied it at 53.

The Cats moved the ball well on the ensuing possession, but graduate forward Elyjah Williams was unable to connect on an open three. 

“It was a great shot by Elyjah,” senior forward Pete Nance said. “He works on it every day, and everyone has total confidence in him making that shot. I want him to shoot that 10 times out of 10.”

With 1:37 on the clock and the game tied, Cockburn missed a short hook shot. Da’Monte Williams cleaned up his miss and slammed it home to put the Fighting Illini up 55-53, and NU never saw the lead again.

The ending spoiled a nice bounce-back performance from Nance, who missed two critical free throws in the Cats’ 72-70 loss to Michigan Wednesday. Nance made eight of his 15 field goal attempts and scored 21 points — the seventh 20-point game of his NU career — to go with five rebounds.

“(The atmosphere) really makes a difference,” Nance said. “The times when you haven’t scored a couple possessions in a row, you see all these people in the stands cheering for you and supporting what you’re trying to do, that really means a lot.”

The game concluded a stretch of four games against top 25 opponents in a five-game span for the Cats; they went 1-4, losing every game, except a blowout against Purdue, by single digits. Despite this, Collins stressed that NU could take numerous positives into the back half of its Big Ten schedule, which begins Tuesday against Rutgers. 

“If you play Illinois … to a one-possession game, there’s going to be a lot of positives,” Collins said. “But at the end of the day, we didn’t win, and that’s what I’m sick about, because our guys deserve better.”

Related Stories:

Rapid Recap: No. 24 Illinois 59, Northwestern 56

Men’s Basketball: Northwestern’s inability to finish late looms large in two-point Michigan loss

Men’s Basketball: Northwestern fails to close game despite second half run, falls to Michigan 72-70

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