Illinois and Iowa hold on for road wins

In a game Illinois had to have after being shellacked on the road versus Purdue, the Orange and Blue prevailed in Evanston over in-state rival Northwestern with a 57-56 victory. The game was not aesthetically pleasing, especially in the second half, when the Illini held Northwestern to 6 of 25 shooting while letting them hang in the game by only shooting 9 of 23 for themselves.

After struggling in the first half, Illinois went into the break down five, but rallied to start the second thanks to some Joseph Bertrand slickness. The chief's crew led by 7 with just under two minutes remaining, and with the game slugging along like it was, that seemed like an insurmountable lead. Turns out that was true, but consecutive three-pointers by Alex Marcotullio and John Shurna made this one really close.

The Purple Cats amazingly tied the game on Drew Crawford's tip-in of Jershon Cobb's three-point attempt with 18 seconds left. On the ensuing possession, Brandon Paul burst to the hoop, but could not get the layup to fall. Freshman Myke Henry was fouled on his rebound attempt, which earned a pair of free throws. The first sunk in to give Illinois a one-point lead, but the second went awry and was grabbed by Crawford. The junior swingman attempted to go coast-to-coast for the win, but was blocked by Meyers Leonard on his floater attempt from the low post.

For Illinois, Leonard led with 12 points and 8 rebounds, while Bertrand put up 10 points and 8 rebounds himself. Brandon Paul put in 10 points with 4 rebounds and 4 assists, but he shot 4 of 12 and turned the ball over 6 times. D.J. Richardson had 8 points and 4 assists on 2 of 4 long distance shooting. Freshman big man Nnanna Egwu was 3 of 3 from the field with 9 points in the first half alone, but he barely played in the second half.

Speaking of one-half heroics, John Shurna of Northwestern led everyone with 20 points, but 17 of them were in the first half, after which the Purple Cats led. The next 3 points didn't come until his big three-pointer in the final minute. No one else on Northwestern scored in double digits, and the two guys you'd expect to help out, Crawford and point guard Dave Sobolewski were a combined 3 of 17 from the field.

Hail to the Orange notes that Illinois got one that they needed and that Meyers Leonard is basically a beast.

Remember that folks. Meyers is very literally the difference on this team. He is the team's best passer, the best consistent offensive threat, and the player most likely to take over. Defenses plan their entire strategy around him, and he cannot by guarded by just one man. Enjoy him while you can folks.

Playing on the road in Minnesota, Iowa got off to a rough start in the first half, but the game changed before the break thanks to Fran McCaffery's switch to zone defense. Black Heart Gold Pants does a good job explaining how the change in defensive strategy led to a 64-62 Iowa win.

It's hard to believe that one tactical change could make such a difference, but Iowa's switch to a 2-3 zone at the four minute mark in the first half completely changed the course of this game. Until that point, the Gophers had looked unstoppable, building a 32-21 lead and going 14-23 (61%) from the field with six layups or dunks and just two turnovers. After that point, they went 12-35 (34%) from the field, 3-18 from three, had ten turnovers and generally looked completely flummoxed. It was as though Fran McCaffery had cast a spell that turned the aggressive, athletic Gophers into meek, docile rodents.

Leading the barrage of clanked three-pointers were Andre Hollins (0 for 5) and Julian Welch (2 for 9). Iowa's defense is also great at not fouling, which was personified in Ralph Sampson III's 6 for 8 shooting performance that resulted in only 12 points for the big man. Sampson was great shooting the ball, but was 0 for 1 from the line and was forced into 6 turnovers.

The Hawkeyes looked ready to wrap things up when a fast-break layup by Roy Devyn Marble made the score 63-55 with just 57 seconds left, but Iowa would only add one more point for the rest of the game. Sampson dropped in a bucket with 9 ticks left to draw the Gophers within two at 64-62 and then Marble missed a pair of free throws to give Minnesota a legit chance to tie. Iowa only escaped with a second straight road win once Maverick Ahanmisi's layup attempt fell off the rim.

Matt Gatens played the role of supreme rebounder versus Wisconsin, but in this one he was back to his usual shenanigans with 19 points and just 6 boards on 7 of 11 shooting. Other big players in the triumph in Madison, Bryce Cartwright and Melsahn Basabe each played less than 20 minutes. Cartwright had just 6 points while Basabe was shutout.

Instead, it was sophomore forward Zach McCabe who stepped up with 12 points and 7 rebounds. Freahman Aaron White ran the floor like a gazelle to finish Iowa's fast breaks. He continues to show great potential and finished with 10 points and 6 rebounds.

We'll be back later with analysis and commentary from the Thursday games.

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