EVANSTON – Illinois coach John Groce liked how his team looked on offense. He liked the Illini’s defense even more.
The Illini went on a 26-0 run in their 62-41 victory over Northwestern on Sunday night and held the Wildcats to a season-low 25 percent shooting.
“Defensively, right now we’re just in the right position more,” Groce said. “We trust one another more. We cover for one another better. We understand that we want five guys guarding the basketball.”
D.J. Richardson scored a game-high 18 points and Tracy Abrams added 13 points off the bench for the Illini (19-8 overall, 6-7 Big Ten), who have won four in a row in a streak that includes a victory over No. 1 Indiana.
Reggie Hearn led Northwestern with 11 points. The Wildcats (13-13, 4-9) have lost three straight and five of their past six.
Illinois scored the first 16 points of the second half after ending the first half on a 10-0 run. Richardson’s layup extended Illinois’ lead to 45-15 with 13:53 remaining. James Montgomery ended that run, scoring Northwestern’s first points of the half on a layup with 13:26 left.
Illinois shot 43.6 percent. The Wildcats committed 14 turnovers while the Illini had nine.
“We’ve got to make shots, and we weren’t able to do that tonight,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “Their defense gets the credit.”
Illinois avenged a 68-54 home loss to Northwestern on Jan. 17 and matched its total of Big Ten wins from last season.
“We knew they came in our place and got us pretty good, so we wanted to return the favor a little bit,” Illinois guard Brandon Paul said.
Richardson has scored in double figures in each of the last eight games, a career-long streak in Big Ten play. He also grabbed eight rebounds.
“He’s playing at a really high level right now at both ends,” Groce said. “I still think people don’t understand how good he is on defense.”
Northwestern’s all-time low for points under Carmody is 37, which has occurred three times, most recently in 2008 against Illinois. The Wildcats’ previous season-low point total was 44 against Illinois-Chicago on Dec. 1. Carmody is in his 13th season at Northwestern.
“They seemed to have a little more pep, a little more step. And we couldn’t get too much going,” Carmody said.
The Wildcats were 7 of 25 from the field and 3 of 14 from beyond the 3-point arc after halftime. Northwestern reached 40 points with 1:30 left on Tre Demps’ layup.
“The vets who are here, we are used to playing a lot of minutes. So we’re not going to use fatigue as an excuse,” Hearn said. “Personally, I shot a few 3s and they were going flat.”
The 10-0 run ending the first half gave Illinois a 29-15 halftime lead. Abrams and Richardson hit back-to-back 3-pointers to finish it.
Abrams led the Illini with 11 points in the first half. Usually a starter, Abrams came off the bench while guard Joseph Bertrand made his third start. Groce said Abrams’ defense graded slightly lower than his teammates at practice and in games.
“Tracy Abrams has been off the charts,” Groce said.
Paul scored eight points, well below his team-leading average of 16.7 points. He added six rebounds and five assists.
“Brandon Paul had one of the best games he’s had all season and scored eight points,” Groce said. “It was as good as he defended all year long. He was communicating, locked in.”
Illinois shot 36.7 percent from the field before halftime. Northwestern shot 21.7 percent.
The Wildcats’ first-half total of 15 wasn’t their season low. They scored 14 in the first half against Minnesota on Jan. 6. Alex Marcotullio led Northwestern on Sunday with eight first-half points but he was scoreless after halftime.
Illinois led 7-0 before Northwestern scored on Marcotullio’s 3-pointer with 16:01 left. After the Wildcats cut it to 7-5, Illinois went on a 9-0 run to lead 16-5. The Illini extended the lead to 19-9 before Northwestern pulled to within 19-15. The Illini then went on a 10-0 run.
Northwestern has beaten Illinois twice in a season just three times, the last time in 1966.
Northwestern center Alex Olah returned after missing one game due to a concussion. He came off the bench with 16:19 left before halftime and finished with five points. Without Olah in the lineup, Northwestern’s tallest starter was 6-foot-8.
Injuries have limited the Wildcats, who are down to just eight scholarship players. They lost forward Jared Swopshire for the season after he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last week. Drew Crawford was sidelined earlier in the season with a shoulder injury.
Still, on Thursday against No. 13 Ohio State, Northwestern led for much of the game before falling 69-59.
The Illini’s last conference winning streak longer than three games was a five-game winning streak in 2010.
Illinois leads the all-time series between the schools 130-38. The Wildcats had won two straight in the series.