Men’s Basketball: Northwestern can’t finish comeback attempt, falls to No. 13 Illinois


Alyce Brown/The Daily Northwestern

Chase Audige pumps up the crowd. Audige scored 12 points in Northwestern’s 73-66 loss to No. 13 Illinois.

Patrick Andres, Sports Editor

No. 13 Illinois’s lead shrunk gradually from 18 points, to 12, to nine, to three — like the thermometer on a cold February night. 

It never evaporated though, and Northwestern’s three-game winning streak ground to an abrupt halt in a 73-66 loss to the Fighting Illini Sunday afternoon in Champaign. 

Illinois led the Wildcats 53-35 with 13:05 to play after guard Alfonso Plummer sank one of his five three-pointers on the afternoon. NU crawled back into the game on the strength of its long-range shooting: sophomore guard Ty Berry hit a three, junior forward Robbie Beran knocked one down and Berry added another to make it an 11-point game at the midpoint of the second half.

To truly make it a game, the Cats leaned on an unlikely source: freshman guard Casey Simmons, who had seen little usage coming in, having last played more than 10 minutes in a game on Jan. 5. His 13 minutes against the Fighting Illini were restricted entirely to the second half, but the Milton, Mass. native made them count.

A minute after checking in, Simmons found Beran for the three-pointer that trimmed Illinois’ lead to 15. When two Berry free throws brought NU within 55-46, Berry stole the ball and found Simmons for a layup on the fast break. Three minutes — and three Simmons steals — later, the freshman dunked and the Fighting Illini’s once daunting lead stood at 55-54.

Illinois went to work making sure the Cats would draw no closer. Fighting Illini center Kofi Cockburn laid the ball in to bring the lead back to three with 5:26 on the clock. When two free throws from redshirt junior guard Chase Audige made it a two-point game shortly thereafter, Cockburn made a free throw and a layup to give Illinois a 61-56 cushion. 

Meanwhile, senior forward Pete Nance spent an unusually lengthy spell on the bench in the second half, playing just eight minutes after halftime. NU seemed to miss Nance’s presence down the stretch, especially as Cockburn began to assert himself on both ends of the floor.

The first half was all Fighting Illini, as coach Brad Underwood’s squad rang up a 44-30 lead. Illinois tried 16 threes in the first half and made nine, compared with four in 10 tries for the Cats. 

Despite its spirited comeback attempt, NU never led, and the game was never tied after Nance hit a jumper to tie it 2-2 55 seconds into the ballgame. 

Simmons and Berry’s contributions were necessary on an afternoon when the Cats’ most reliable contributors struggled. Nance was 4-for-11 from the field, Audige 4-for-15, and junior guard Boo Buie 3-for-13. Beran made both his field goal attempts, but fouled out in 20 minutes. 

For the Fighting Illini, Cockburn and Plummer each scored 19. Cockburn was particularly efficient, making eight of his 11 shots from the field. 

With its hopes of an at-large NCAA Tournament berth rapidly disappearing, NU will meet No. 3 Purdue Wednesday at home, hoping to avenge a blowout loss in the two teams’ first meeting. 

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Twitter: @pandres2001

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