Just three nights after an embarrassing defeat at home to Illinois State, Northwestern (2-2) did a complete 180 with a 93-58 blowout at UIC (1-3) on Wednesday. The Wildcats used a 10-0 run early in the first half to take a 12-2 lead and never looked back. By halftime, the advantage had grown to 25 points.
Northwestern head coach Chris Collins was very pleased with the hot start, saying it was an emphasized point before the game.
“We had a poor first half our last game,” Collins said. “We wanted to impose our will with our energy and fight early. We were really locked in. We were defending. I thought we were quicker to the ball. It was very important to get off to a good start for our psyche too. Anytime you come off two losses in a row…you want to play again, but you’re also a little bit unsure.”
UIC showed a brief sign of life early in the second half with a 13-7 spurt that cut Northwestern’s lead to 21 points, but the Flames could get no closer.
The 35-point victory was Northwestern’s first road win by such a margin since a 77-20 win against University of Chicago on January 14, and it ended the Wildcats’ four-game losing streak to the Flames.
“Obviously we’re very thrilled with our performance tonight,” Collins said. “I’m proud of our guys, the way we responded to Sunday. … The thing that I loved about my group is their reaction to Sunday was not being down or being sad—it was anger. And they played that way tonight.”
Junior point guard Dave Sobolewski paced the Wildcats with 25 points, a career-high, on 9-of-14 shooting. Sobolewski also tied his season-high with four assists.
In the first half, he was on fire, going for 17 points and 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc. Defensively, he had a pair of steals, his first of the young season.
“Dave got himself going early,” Collins said. “He had a good pace to his game.”
Sobolewski pushed the pace in the first half, keeping UIC’s defenders on their heels. The Wildcats looked sharp in transition with 10 fastbreak points in the first period.
“It didn’t allow the defense to attack us; it allowed us to attack them,” Collins said of the tempo. “At this level, you have to find a way to get some easy points, whether it be in transition or at the free throw line. Coaches are too good, teams are too good. If you just walk the ball up the floor and play half court all game, you’re going to have a hard time getting good shots.”
Wednesday marked a breakthrough performance for Sobolewski, who struggled in Northwestern’s first three outings. He entered the 2013-14 season as the Wildcats’ top returning scorer and distributor with 9.8 points and four assists per game. But entering the UIC Pavilion, he was averaging only 6.7 points on 33.3% shooting and had more turnovers than assists.
“I approached it just like any other game,” Sobolewski said. “I got some good looks to start the game, and that kind of stated it. … My teammates did a great job of finding me in positions to score early on. They drove and got me open shots.”
Four other Wildcats scored in double figures. Redshirt junior Drew Crawford had 18 points, redshirt sophomore Tre Demps had 13, and Sanjay Lumpkin and Alex Olah each had 10.
All of these guys watched Northwestern’s ugly, 50-44 defeat to UIC at Welsh-Ryan Arena last season, and Sobolewski said it was “in the back of our minds for sure.”
“We know what they did to us last year,” Lumpkin added.
UIC was led by senior Jordan Harks, a Central Arkansas transfer, with 13 points and 11 rebounds, his first double-double as a Flame. Harks is now averaging 13 points and 9.5 rebounds in his last two games.
Purdue transfer Kelsey Barlow added 10 points and three assists while junior Marc Brown, who entered the matchup as the Horizon League’s leading scorer with 21.7 points per game, was held to seven points on 2-of-10 shooting.
The Flames have now lost each of their last two games by at least 20 points and are 0-3 against Division I competition.
“We’ve got to become a unit,” Harks said. “We’re playing a lot of individual basketball right now. As a unit, we need to get more chemistry and just get it together. Defensively, we’re just letting them score too much.”
Defense has certainly been a problem, especially on the perimeter, for UIC. In the Flames’ loss to Eastern Illinois last Saturday, the Panthers shot 9-of-14 on three-pointers. Wednesday, Northwestern drained 11-of-20, 7-of-12 in the first half, from beyond the arc.
“We’re just trying to put ourselves in a position where we’re protecting the paint and not allowing easy shots in the paint,” UIC head coach Howard Moore said. “But for some, we’re giving up easy threes and that’s unacceptable. It’s not just one guy’s fault; it’s a team deal. … It’s one of those things that’s fixable. It’s not an end of the world type of deal, but the urgency level is at an all-time high.”
Aside from poor perimeter defense, UIC also put itself in early trouble with missed opportunities in the paint and at the foul line.
“We missed 10 layups at the beginning of the game, and we missed seven free throws” Moore said. “You’re just shooting yourself in the foot if you can’t make layups. … [Northwestern] had some run outs off those missed layups, and they’re like turnovers.”
UIC will look to get its woes turned around by Monday, when they open the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida against 4-0 San Diego.
Northwestern will return to action on Friday night with a home match against IUPUI.
Other notes from Wednesday night:
—Northwestern junior Dave Sobolewski on former high school teammate Frank Kaminsky, who set a Wisconsin record with 43 points on Tuesday against North Dakota: “That was unbelievable. I was really happy for him. To have a record at a school like [Wisconsin] is really fantastic.”
—Chris Collins, only half-jokingly, on Sobolewski’s tip-in during the first half: “It might be the first tip-in of his career.” Sobolewski is generously listed at 6’1″ and not known for his leaping ability.
—Collins on the first few weeks of his first season as Northwestern’s head coach: “It’s an adjustment period. We’re still in the infancy stages ow ho we’re going to become. These guys, they’re attitudes are great. Although you’re going to get frustrated at times when things aren’t going well, we have a really good camaraderie on our team and guys are really buying into everything we’re trying to do on both ends.”