24 January 2010

Recap: Northwestern 73 Illinois 68

The beat goes on. Northwestern (14-5, 3-4 Big Ten) won a pivotal game over Illinois (12-8, 4-3) at the Welsh last night. In so doing the Wildcats kept their dreams of an NCAAs berth alive and well.

Two themes emerged in a wild game before a raucous student body packed into the baseline stands like sardines. First the Illini failed to put away an ice cold Wildcat squad in the second half. At the 14:16 mark Illinois took an eight point lead on DJ Richardson layup. Over the ensuing seven minutes Northwestern managed to score just three points.

This seven minute stretch was a golden opportunity for the Illini to land a huge psychological blow and sew up the victory. Remarkably the Illini lead actually shrunk by a point during that time as the Illini shot just 1-5 from the field and turned the ball over five times. Instead of a dejected crowd and team from an insurmountable Illini lead there was a palpable feeling that it was only a matter of time until Northwestern heated up and got back into the game.

This brings us to the second theme of this game: Northwestern outcoached Illinois. During the under 8 minute media timeout Coach Carmody drew up an inbounds play from under the Illini hoop that netted a Shurna backdoor dunk. The crowd and the team were instantly inflated. At this same time NU switched to a half court press that took the ball out of McCamey's hands and the Illini out of their rhythm. This change in strategy and the switch in momentum resulted in just two Illini buckets until the last minute. By that time Northwestern had built a seven point cushion and NU eased off the defensive pressure to keep the clock running and force the Illini to make baskets to climb back into the game.

Illinois did make shots to keep it interesting, but Northwestern hung on for the victory thanks to good free throw shooting by Shurna and Nash down the stretch.

Jeremy Nash has received much pub for his 22 point performance. It wasn't the most efficient 22 points, but Nash made shots when they mattered most -- including the aforementioned free throws down the stretch as well as three pointer that gave NU the lead and a driving runner in the lane that gave NU a two possession lead.

Juice Thompson has also received some well-deserved attention. Juice was in foul trouble throughout and played just 8 minutes in the first half. During his absence the Illini went on a 20-2 run which made it became abundantly clear to casual observers how important Juice is to this team. Juice's unofficial plus-minus for the game was a remarkable +18. Juice only scored 4 points which goes to show that he is the straw that stirs the drink and makes everyone else better. That is the essence of a team MVP.

Drew Crawford had a solid game including a 12 point first half. Luka Mirkovic just missed a double-double with 9 points and 9 rebounds. When you add Luka's and Kyle Rowley's stats together the center position provided a double-double (13 points, 12 boards) and arguably outplayed Mike Tisdale who abused them down in Champaign in late December.

Congratulations to the team on a hard earned victory. You've put yourselves into position for a run to the NCAAs. A tough week lays ahead with trips to Minneapolis and East Lansing. The good news is neither game is a must win. If NU can steal one of these two games then fans can start getting serious about making plans for mid-March.