CHAMPAIGN – Northwestern and Illinois both were looking to bounce back from bad blowouts Thursday night, games where neither team could shoot or play defense.
Only the Wildcats improved, extending No. 23 Illinois’ losing streak to three games while handing the Illini a 68-54 home loss that could cost them their Top 25 ranking.
After starting slow against Iowa and never catching up in the 70-50 whipping, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody was looking for a faster start.
The Wildcats (11-7, 2-3 Big Ten) delivered with a barrage of 3-pointers early and 10 points in the first 10 minutes from Reggie Hearn.
“I thought they really came out tonight and played well,” Carmody said. “Hearn was very good early. ... If they make shots you’re a good coach.”
Illinois (14-5, 1-4) has lost five of seven after its 12-0 start and fallen near the bottom of the Big Ten.
Coach John Groce, frustrated on a night that he was called for a technical foul for arguing with the officials, said his team’s defense was absent early Thursday. And Northwestern took advantage of it.
“I thought the first 10 minutes they were a juggernaut,” Groce said. “I didn’t think we did anything whatsoever to be disruptive and take them out of that.”
Hearn’s hot start included two 3-pointers.
The second of them, buried with just more than 10 minutes left in the first half, put the Wildcats up 21-12.
The were 8 of 15 from 3-point range for the game but hit five of them in the first half to build a 36-21 lead.
And Northwestern made 26 of 31 free throws, many of them late with Illinois forced to foul.
The cold-shooting Illini closed within 48-39 on a free throw by Brandon Paul with 4:36 to play. Illinois would get no closer, watching the Wildcats make free throws that Carmody said were the difference down the stretch.
“I think that we were making some foul shots helped and it kept that distance for us,” Carmody said.
Jared Swopshire had 12 points and six rebounds for Northwestern, while Alex Marcotullio scored 12 points and Dave Sobolewski added 10 before fouling out late.
Paul had 21 points for Illinois, which shot 38 percent from the field, including going 3 of 20 from 3-point range.
Illinois opened the second half with two things that had been missing in the first, intensity and defensive pressure. Where first-half points sometimes came in easy waves for the Wildcats, early in the second Illinois made them work.
But with the cold shooting — they opened the second half hitting 4 of 11 from the field and were just 1 of 6 from 3-point range — the Illini didn’t make up any ground.
Marcotullio’s 3-pointer with 12:53 left pushed Northwestern’s lead to 45-30, the same 15-point margin they had at halftime.
Paul finally ended a scoreless run of just over 5 minutes for Illinois with a layup with 9:35 left to play, trimming the Wildcats’ lead to 45-32.
Groce’s frustration was apparent.
He drew a technical foul for shouting at the officials with just under 11 minutes left in the game.
“That’s enough — you’ve got to calm down!” referee Jim Burr shouted at Groce along the sideline.
Swopshire missed both free throws — rare Northwestern misses — but the Wildcats didn’t need the points.
Moments later a member of the Orange Krush student section was escorted out of the Assembly Hall after being tossed by Burr.
Groce and the fans were on the officials much of the night for what they saw as missed calls, but Groce declined to discuss the officiating.
“I don’t want to talk about it or get into it,” he said. “If I did I’d have less money for shopping.”
From the opening moments, it was not the Illini’s night, and there were any number of examples.
There was Nnanna Egwu’s big block on Alex Olah’s short jumper with 4:25 to play in the first half. With their team already down 30-17, the Illinois crowd seized on the moment, releasing a roar of collective relief. Before the noise had even faded, Olah grabbed the rebound and tucked it into the basket.
And there was the Illini’s final first-half possession. Trailing 36-21, they had three chances to cut that lead and pocket something to build on in the final 20 minutes. But three chances yielded three misses, and the team trotted quietly off the court.
The problem is, it hasn’t been Illinois’ night in a couple of weeks.
Since they upset then-No. 8 Ohio State on Jan. 5, the Illini are 0-3. And there hasn’t been a close game in the bunch, losing by 17 to Minnesota, a stunning 23 at Wisconsin and by 14 at home to Northwestern.
The Wildcats finished 15 of 51 (29.4 percent) from the field and 5 of 26 from 3-point range in the loss to Iowa.
On Thursday, they made up for it, shooting 47.2 percent from the field. Hearn was 4 of 7 — including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers — and 9 of 10 from the free throw line.
“It’s a very good win for us, especially on the road,” Carmody said. “I thought our defense was pretty solid and we made shots.”
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