CHAMPAIGN - Students at Northwestern are smart. No one disputes that. However, a couple Wildcats apparently had a brain cramp Wednesday night.
It seems Northwestern did some talking when they tied 14th-ranked Illinois at 29-all early in the second half.
Not a good move when Dee Brown is within earshot.
The Illini senior guard sank back-to-back 3-pointers, getting fouled on the second. His seven-point blitz triggered a 15-2 run that propelled Illinois to a much-needed 63-47 victory over the Wildcats in a Big Ten Conference game before a relieved Assembly Hall sellout crowd.
"My teammates moved the ball well and I took it upon myself to make shots," said Brown, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half. "I stepped up and contributed to the team."
The Illini (21-4), coming off their first two-game losing streak in two years, moved into a third-place tie in the Big Ten with Ohio State at 7-4. Illinois entertains Indiana and embattled Coach Mike Davis at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
Rich McBride paced the Illini with 17 points, while Brian Randle and reserve Warren Carter each added 10. Illinois shot 60.8 percent in the second half to finish with a season-best 55.8 percent. The Illini were 18 of 23 inside the 3-point line, but 6 of 20 outside.
It wasn't always pretty for the Illini, who committed nine turnovers in the first half and went through a 5:25 drought without scoring.
Bruce Weber didn't care.
"I just wanted to win today. It's been a long two weeks," said the Illinois coach. "We've suffered through it. I hope this is a confidence builder. We'll see how we react to it."
This looked to be an easy Illini victory early. Northwestern played without forward Vedran Vukusic, the Big Ten's leading scorer with a 20.2 average. Vukusic sat on the bench with a back injury.
Illinois quickly jumped out to a 15-3 lead thanks to nine points from McBride. But when Northwestern (12-11, 4-7) went to a zone, the Illini struggled and most in the crowd began thinking back to Feb. 4.
That's when Penn State, which trailed 13-0, stunned the Illini 66-65. That ended Illinois' 33-game home-court winning streak. The Illini came out flat last Sunday at Ohio State in a 69-53 defeat.
So when Northwestern outscored Illinois 9-2 at the start of the second half, many wondered if the Illini's season might be going in the trash.
Brown and his teammates had other ideas.
"They were talking a little trash. Sometimes that can be the downfall for a team," said Randle. "For them to be so high to be able talk to us whatever way they did, then when Dee knocked down shots like that, it breaks your back."
Northwestern, though, didn't immediately fold. Reserve center Vince Scott, who was without a 3-pointer in Big Ten play before the game, went 3 of 4 behind the arc. His back-to-back 3-pointers cut Illinois' lead to 48-45.
Those were Northwestern's last baskets. The Wildcats missed their last five shots and committed four turnovers in the final eight minutes. Randle, who sat out last season when he broke his hand punching a padded wall at practice, had the last laugh.
Randle went high in the air for a rebound after Brown missed a jumper, throwing down a violent one-handed slam dunk for a 55-45 lead with 4:33 left.
"I think (Tim) Doyle tried to be smart one time and say I should punch my hand through some glass or something," said Randle. "Needless to say, when I got the dunk I said something back to him."
Guard Mohamed Hachad led Northwestern with 17 points and Scott added 11.
The Illini had an easy time against Northwestern last month. Vukusic went 1 of 14 from the field as Illinois got off to a big lead and coasted to a 58-47 victory.
Weber was worried when he heard Vukusic couldn't play.
"It happens all the time. When the best player is out, someone steps up," said Weber. "They played loosey goosey. We struggle after we get off to great starts. As a coach, you almost don't want to. We don't deal well with early leads."
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody would have liked to have had Vukusic available late in the game.
"They (the Illini) really stepped it up the last eight minutes defensively. Our guys were worn out," said Carmody. "We tried to get guys in and out. Fatigue set in. They played us hard the entire game. They seemed fresher."
Brown, who had seven assists and nine turnovers in the last two games, became the school's all-time leader in minutes played. He played 34 Wednesday to increase his career total to 4,397. Bruce Douglas held the record for 20 years with 4,373 minutes.
For Brown, the last 11 days has seemed like 20 years.
"We emphasized energy, enthusiasm and having fun playing basketball," said Brown. "We have to bring the fun back. It was enjoyable. There were a lot of big plays. We have to continue playing with energy and enthusiasm and we'll be fine."