ROSEMONT — When Big Ten Conference play finally begins, not only do the stakes rise on the basketball court.
The intensity soars, too.
So it was Friday night at Allstate Arena as Illinois and Northwestern tangled in an unusually early conference opener.
As a rule, Big Ten Conference basketball games are borderline brawls with pushing, shoving, elbows and an appropriate amount of trash talking.
Friday was no exception as these in-state rivals pushed each other to overtime, the Wildcats winning a 2½-hour thriller, 72-68.
Scottie Lindsey’s two free throws with 59 seconds to go gave Northwestern a 70-68 lead.
Illinois attacked with Mark Alstork, whose baseline drive was thwarted when his shot was tipped.
Northwestern, holding a two-point lead, could not convert on its end when Bryant McIntosh’s jumper missed. Aaron Jordan grabbed the rebound with 12 seconds to play and the Illini had one more chance.
Illinois hustled to the other end but Te’Jon Lucas, who had played the game of his life, had his drive blocked by Northwestern’s Dererk Pardon and Pardon was fouled.
With 2.1 seconds to go, Isiah Brown hit two free throws for the Wildcats to lock up the victory.
If every Big Ten game is like this one, both teams will be exhausted by the end of January.
Neither coach could complain about the intensity, which was leaps and bounds ahead of anything Illinois has seen this season. It was physical, with a couple of near skirmishes. A total of 51 personal fouls were called, 28 on Northwestern.
But in the end, Northwestern survived with two fewer turnovers. Illinois had 19, the Wildcats 17.
Leron Black led the Illini (6-2) with 15 points and seven rebounds. Lucas had 14 points, five rebounds and two assists. He also set the tone defensively.
Alstork had 14 points and six rebounds and Jordan scored 10 points.
But Michael Finke went 0-for-3 from the field and scored just two points against a Northwestern team that blanketed the Illini with a zone defense.
Lindsey led Northwestern (5-3) with 22 points and Vic Law added 16 and had seven rebounds.
Illinois had the upper hand for most of the first half, using its defensive intensity to keep the Wildcats off balance. Sparked by Lucas, Jordan and Black, Illinois built a first-half lead that reached eight points when Finke hit a free throw with 6:12 to go that pushed the lead to 26-18.
Northwestern clawed its way back. And when McIntosh hit a 3-pointer with 1:56 to go, the score was tied 30-30.
But while Northwestern made a nice rally to get back in the hunt, Illinois won the final minute to take a 36-32 halftime lead.
When Trent Frazier missed a 3-pointer with under a minute to go, Alstork stole the rebound and was knocked out of bounds. He converted both free throws for a 34-32 Illini lead.
Then, after McIntosh stepped out of bounds trying to get around defender Finke's physical hip-check, Alstork struck again.
This time he forced the issue, barging through traffic to score on a physical drive and a 36-32 lead Illinois took to the locker room.
But Northwestern blitzed Illinois to open the second half, scoring seven straight points to open a 39-36 lead. It wasn’t until the 16:18 mark that Illinois scored on Black’s jumper.
Illinois has another quick turnaround, busing back to Champaign, then practicing Saturday afternoon before playing host to Maryland in another Big Ten matchup at 7 p.m. Sunday.
These early Big Ten games are the result of Commissioner Jim Delany’s decision to play the Big Ten Tournament in Madison Square Garden this season. Because the Big East Conference has the building booked the week leading up to Selection Sunday, the Big Ten was forced to play one week earlier.
That caused the league to require each Big Ten team to play two conference games between Dec. 1 and De. 5.
After Sunday’s game, the Illini will resume nonconference games and play six games before playing the remaining 16 Big Ten games on its schedule starting Jan. 3 at Minnesota.