05 February 2012

Northwestern 74 ILLINOIS 70 (F)

Northwestern (14-8, 4-6) traveled down to Illinois (16-7,5-5) for a Super Sunday rematch with avenging a narrow one point loss in Evanston on their mind.  Despite some chatter that Luka Mirkovic and JerShon Cobb were set to return from the scratch list, Northwestern once again went with a "small" lineup and just a six man "rotation" throughout.  It worked against Nebraska, and it worked again at Illinois.

In the first half it was the Reggie Hearn show.  Reggie was perfect from the field and tallied 16 points on 6-6 shooting and 4-4 from distance.  As a team Northwestern shot 56% from the field and 46% from distance.  Aside from sloppy care for the ball by Crawford and Marcotullio (2 and 3 turnovers, respectively) it really was an impressive offensive display against a very solid Illini defense.

Northwestern employed the 1-3-1 defense to help an undersized Johnny Shurna defend Meyers Leonard in the post.  It wasn't a bad strategy, but Leonard still was able to get the ball down low and scored 12 points on 6-6 shooting.  The Illini offense was similarly efficient to Northwestern's shooting 59% from the field and 46% from distance.  NU's slight rebounding edge and one fewer turnovers helped NU edge out to a 36-33 lead at half.

Out of halftime the Illini cranked up the defensive pressure.  Over the first 10 minutes NU managed to score just 7 points while bricking all five of its free throw attempts and were held scoreless for a 7 1/2 minute stretch.  However the Illini were unable to fully capitalize on their defensive efforts and led just 46-43 at the 10 minute mark.

It was at that point that Johnny Shurna decided to take over.  Shurna scored 4 quick points to bring NU's offense back to life.  And for the remainder of the game every big Illini bucket was answered by Johnny either taking his man off the dribble, posting up, or cutting hard for a backdoor layup.  By the time he was through Shurna had 12 points on 6-7 of shooting over the final 10 minutes of the game.  The Illini, down by 5 points with a minute to play, decided they had seen enough of Shurna's heroics and fouled his teammates to extend the game.  But it was futile exercise as Northwestern answered the bell and went 8-10 from the charity stripe to ice the game.

And with that beauticious road victory Northwestern's NCAAs quest is back on track!   Next up are the Iowa Hawkeyes (13-11,5-6) who visit The Welsh on Sunday evening for an 8pm tip.  The Hawkeyes were left dead to rights after slinking to a 5-5 non-conference start that included an awful home loss to Campbell and blowout losses to Clemson at home and Northern Iowa on the road.  Somehow Iowa righted the ship by the time B1G play began and spoiled Wisconsin's New Year's Eve with a stunning 72-65 upset at the Kohl.  The Hawkeyes followed that up with another road victory at the barn to sit at a surprising 2-1 in conference play. They have since come back to reality somewhat, but they Hawkeyes are riding a two game winning streak coming into this game and feeling pretty good about themselves.  No B1G game is a gimme, but if NU wants to keep breathing life into its NCAAs dreams then they will need to win what is the most winnable game on paper that remains on its schedule.