It was one of the ugliest games you will find in college basketball this season, but a win is a win for Chris Collins and Northwestern (8-9, 1-3 Big Ten).
Sunday night, the Wildcats upset No. 23 Illinois (13-4, 2-2), 49-43, at Welsh-Ryan Arena, giving Collins his first, program-defining win as the head coach at Northwestern.
“Thinking of getting my first Big Ten win, I never thought my team would have only 49 points,” Collins said. “We were so locked in defensively, our guards were rebounding. … It was fun to be able to celebrate with our guys in the locker room.”
Northwestern opened up a 22-15 lead at halftime while holding Illinois to 0.52 points per possession.
After a bucket from redshirt freshman Sanjay Lumpkin put the Wildcats up nine points early in the second half, junior JerShon Cobb picked up his third personal foul. Collins stuck to convention and took out his backcourt’s leader, and Northwestern began to unravel.
Northwestern’s lead became double digits after a Drew Crawford free throw, but Illinois then used a 12-2 run to the tie score at 27-27 with 11:33 remaining.
Cobb returned after Northwestern called for a timeout, and the Wildcats regained their footing with a 5-0 spurt.
Illinois once again had the necessary response, as Kendrick Nunn‘s three-pointer once again knotted the score with 7:07 to play.
But when redshirt sophomore Tre Demps knocked his first of three consecutive triples, the Wildcats went on top for good. Demps’ outside shooting created a 9-2 run on his own, and on the next possession Cobb drove and converted a layup to put Northwestern’s lead at nine points.
The Wildcats struggled against the Illini’s pressure, turning over the ball four times in the final two minutes, but Illinois could not convert often enough.
Rayvonte Rice‘s three-pointer with 18 seconds left cut the lead to 45-43, but Northwestern made four straight free throws as the Illini missed their final shot attempt.
“We did not make enough plays on offense,” Illinois head coach John Groce said. “I did think they defended well. It’s a blend there of them defending well and us not being nearly aggressive [enough].”
Although Sunday’s victory was a clear step in the right direction for Northwestern’s program, the Wildcats have a taller task Wednesday when they take on No. 4 Michigan State.