EVANSTON – Northwestern may not have picked up a victory Thursday at Ohio State, but the team earned a big thumbs-up from its coach, Bill Carmody.

On Saturday, Northwestern got another compliment from coach John Groce, whose Illinois team takes on the Wildcats at 6:30 Sunday night in a Big Ten Conference game.

Northwestern (13-12, 4-8) faced a seemingly impossible task against the 13th-rahed Buckeyes, playing on the road and dealing with injuries that limited Carmody to just seven scholarship players, nine overall.

Still, Northwestern led much of the way and with two minutes to go the game was tied. Ohio State needed a 12-0 burst at the end to win the game, 69-59.

“I said to them, ‘In your lives you have been in a lot of situations where you thought you were an underdog or that you didn’t have a chance.’ That’s not unusual for guys at this level,” Carmody said. “I told them to go out there and play your tails off and if you do that, then you’ll get people’s respect. I thought they did that.”

Northwestern lost projected starter JerShon Cobb to academics. Then the team’s leading scorer, Drew Crawford, was sidelined by a shoulder injury.

Just last week starting forward Jared Swopshire had his season cut short by knee surgery. Sanjay Lumpkin (wrist) and Chier Ajou (knee) have had season-ending injuries and against Ohio State, center Alex Olah did not play because of a concussion. He’s questionable for Sunday.

Groce, whose team is 18-8 and 5-7 in the Big Ten, said the Wildcats’ effort proves they’ll be a formidable opponent.

“It was unbelievable watching the tape,” Groce said. “I was really impressed with the way they executed. They made 11 3-pointers and other guys stepped up.

“Their system is so rock-solid. They are very precise. They take care of the ball and they can sometimes muddy up a game by limiting possessions and every possession becomes valuable.”

The starting lineup Carmody patched together at Ohio State included three freshmen, a sophomore and senior Reggie Hearn, who scored 20 points when Northwestern beat Illinois earlier in the season.

In discussing Illinois’ improved play, Groce has often pointed to a 71-51 victory at Nebraska on Jan. 22 as the turning point. Northwestern’s 68-54 victory over Illinois in Champaign was one game before the trip to Nebraska.

“I think we’re a better team than when we played them in Champaign,” Groce said. “I feel like we’ve been getting a lot better. Guys are understanding what we’re asking from them. Are we playing the best we’ve played this year? I think we are.”

Illinois beat Purdue 79-59 on Wednesday for its third straight win.

“There’s still room for improvement,” Groce said. “Actually, we had several defensive errors and some offensive miscues in the Purdue game. We haven’t reached our full potential yet and that’s the fun part.”

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