EVANSTON – Illinois’ revitalized NCAA Tournament hopes got another boost Sunday with a 62-41 victory over Northwestern.
Illinois broke the game open by using a 26-0 run that extended from the final two-and-a-half minutes of the first half through the opening six minutes of the second half.
During that stretch, Illinois scored on 11 of 15 possessions while Northwestern missed 10 consecutive shots and had three turnovers.
It was the fourth victory in a row, continuing a course correction made at a time when Illinois had staggered to a 2-7 Big Ten record. Now, if Illinois can take care of Penn State at the Assembly Hall on Thursday, the winning streak will be five, the overall victory total will have reached 20 and that Big Ten record will have evened at 7-7.
Much has changed in a period of 11 days.
“Our goal since the start of the season is this right here,” center Sam McLaurin said, pointing to a wrist band the team has been wearing since October. “Right here it says 3-19-13,” the first day of competition in the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s where we want to be.”
Illinois struggled defensively when Northwestern came to Champaign and won 68-54 on Jan. 17. But this time it was the Wildcats turn to struggle.
Northwestern (13-13, 4-9) scored just 15 points while shooting 21.7 percent in the first half.
“Our offense was bad the entire night,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. “It didn’t seem to have any flow to it.
“They guarded us in a similar fashion in Champaign, switching everything, but they did it very effectively tonight.
“They seemed to have a little more pep in their step and we couldn’t get too much going. Give their defense credit.”
D.J. Richardson led Illinois (19-8, 6-7) with 18 points and eight rebounds. Tracy Abrams scored 13 points and even though Brandon Paul totaled just eight points, coach John Groce praised his production.
“Brandon had one of the best games he’s had all season,” Groce said. “That’s as good as he’s defended all year long, a really good all-around game.”
The first half was a study in offensive futility until Illinois put together a 10-0 flourish to close out the period.
Ahead 19-15, Richardson hit a baseline jumper to increased the advantage to 21-15.
After Northwestern’s Reggie Hearn missed, McLaurin was fouled under the basket and hit two free throws to make it 23-15.
Then it was Dave Sobolewski’s turn to miss a 3-pointer for the Wildcats and Abrams followed with his third 3-pointer of the half to extend the Illini lead to 26-15.
After another Northwestern missed shot, Illinois played for one final basket and got it when McLaurin passed out of the post and found Richardson on the deep wing. Richardson’s only 3-pointer of the half ripped through the net with one second left and the 29-15 lead was Illinois’ largest of the half.
But that was just the beginning of the Illini onslaught.
A 3-pointer by Richardson opened the second half scoring for Illinois and a layup by Abrams and a 3-pointer by Paul followed for a 37-15 lead.
After Paul stole the ball, he led a fast break and dished to Richardson for another basket and a 39-15 advantage.
Consecutive baskets by Tyler Griffey and a driving basket by Richardson opened a 45-15 lead and capped the 26-0 Illini run.
It was at the 13:26 mark that Northwestern’s James Montgomery scored on a layup, accounting for the Wildcats’ first points since the 2:56 mark of the first half – a 9½-minute scoring drought.
Reggie Hearn scored 11 points and was the only Northwestern play in double figures.
There were plenty or orange-clad fans in a crowd of 8,117.
That included a group of 150 from the Orange Krush student support group, who rode three buses and showed up wearing purple Northwestern shirts. They peeled those off in dramatic fashion just before the opening tipoff, revealing their orange Illini apparel.
Three of those clever Krush members even managed to get picked for a timeout competition in which participants were involved in a tricycle race. They wore their purple until the contest ended, then yanked up the shirts to show their orange, an embarrassing moment for the Wildcat game management staff.
Thursday’s Illinois-Penn State game tips off at 7:15 p.m. and will be broadcast by the Big Ten Network. Penn State slipped to 8-17 and 0-13 in the Big Ten with a loss to Michigan on Sunday.
Four regular-season games remain before the Big Ten Conference Tournament March 15-17 at the United Center in Chicago.