It was only fitting that Northwestern would get their first Big Ten victory in one of the ugliest games that we will see all year. Northwestern defeated Illinois in an extremely low scoring affair, 49 to 43. Neither team shot particularly well from the field. The Illini went 18 for 64 (28.1 percent) while the 'Cats hit 16 of 41 (37.2%).
The 'Cats found themselves up seven points at intermission as Illinois only put up 15 points in the first half on 6 of 31 shooting. Illinois would claw their way back into the game. With 11:31 left, Kendrick Nunn made a layup to tie the game at 27, but Tre Demps would knock down three 3-pointers in three minutes and the wildcat lead would push to as big as nine.
After Illinois switched into a full court press and forced some turnovers, Rayvonte Rice hit a three pointer to make it a two-point game with just 18 seconds left. However, Drew Crawford knocked down all four of his free throws in the final 15 seconds of the game to seal the deal for the 'Cats.
Northwestern played the entire game without Dave Sobolewski, who had suffered a concussion in practice. JerShon Cobb and Tre Demps filled in at the point. They each had 11 points, and Demps had the fans at Welsh-Ryan Arena on their feet with some clutch threes down the stretch. Collins said that Demps will continue to come off the bench but will get "starter minutes".
Although they were not impressive by any means, the Northwestern offense seemed to find its identity. Chris Collins tried to slow the pace as much as possible. The team worked through the offense and looked for high quality shots. Until the end of the game when Illinois threw the press on, NU rarely turned the ball over.
Northwestern was able to maintain possession in large part due to Illinois's lack of pressure on defense. Demps and Cobb are not great ball handlers, but in the first half, the Illini didn't pressure them in the backcourt or even anywhere near half court. With an early lead, Northwestern was able to set the pace in this game, and it was very slow.
The reduced tempo and mix of defensive looks Collins put together took Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice out of their element a bit. The two combined for just 21 points on 8 of 26 shooting. Abrams was the only Illini player in double figures.
Illinois beat Northwestern in both the rebounding and turnover margins, but it came down to who could shoot the rock. And Northwestern proved to be more efficient from the field throughout the game.
The play wasn't the only ugly facet of this game. Northwestern was wearing its new "By the Player" uniforms designed by Chris Collins' squad. The grey Under Armour uniforms feature a collage of Chicago landmarks and the team's likes, including steak, headphones, and video games. The reaction to the uniforms has generally been rather negative.
Welsh-Ryan Arena was packed to the brim with plenty of purple and orange as fans from both sides came to see the in-state rivalry. While plenty of noise was made for scores at each end of the floor, Northwestern certainly had an energy that is only seen on the homecourt. Coach Collins, the other coaches, and the bench were constantly on their feet in the second half, and the stadium got louder than it had been at any other point this season.
For Illinois, it is their second straight loss since entering the AP top 25. The Illini hope to buck the trend as they host Purdue on Wednesday.
The 'Cats' victory marks not only Northwestern's first conference win this season, but also Chris Collins' first B1G win as head coach. The Wildcats will be tested Wednesday as they try get a win streak going at home against Michigan State.