2011 Northwestern Basketball
Northwestern Wildcats vs Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball Recap
Northwestern 71, Illinois 70
The Northwestern Wildcats – who have blown big leads before against the Illinois Fighting Illini – tried to give away Saturday afternoon’s Big Ten game in Evanston, Illinois.
Their opponent from Champaign wouldn’t accept the offer.
It was that kind of a day at Welsh-Ryan Arena on the Northwestern campus. In a zany, crazy game with hard-to-watch sequences in the final minute of regulation time, Northwestern pulled out the kind of win that’s been far too rare for college basketball’s most luckless program.
Northwestern is empirically the least fortunate team from a power conference in Division I men’s basketball. The Wildcats, as is well known throughout the sport, are the only team from a “big six” league (ACC, Big Ten, Pac-10, Big East, SEC, Big 12) that has never made the NCAA Tournament since the event began in 1939. Northwestern is the team that always loses the close games it needs to win in order to reach the Big Dance. A 58-57 loss to No. 1 Ohio State on Jan. 29 was a perfect case in point, as was an overtime loss at Michigan State the week before. Coach Bill Carmody gets his NU roster to play its opponents close on a consistent basis, but the Cats can’t close the sale… they never have in Evanston. Part of Northwestern’s misery is fed by a chronic propensity to blow big leads, and in Saturday’s game against Illinois and coach Bruce Weber, the Wildcats were in the process of repeating that pattern.
Up 53-41 with 10:39 left in regulation, Northwestern watched Illinois score 12 points in the next four minutes to tie the game at 53-apiece with 6:39 to go. Northwestern responded, though, with three triples from guard Michael Thompson (22 points on 5-of-8 shooting from long distance) to take a 66-59 lead with only 1:25 remaining. Surely, the people in Purple would be able to hold this lead, right? Surely, Northwestern would avoid the nightmare scenario of 2009, in which the Wildcats – leading 57-43 with 5:10 left in regulation – wound up losing 60-59 on a Demetri McCamey bucket with three seconds on the clock.
No, Northwestern insisted on making life difficult for itself. The Cats can’t do things the easy way
Leading by three (68-65) with 33 seconds left, Northwestern missed a front end of a one-and-one but then grabbed the offensive rebound, only for the hot-shooting Thompson to commit a turnover just five seconds later, before he could draw a foul with the shot clock turned off. Thompson’s turnover was the typical kind of blunder that has ruined many an NU basketball season.
It wasn’t pretty and it brought back a lot of traumatic memories, but Northwestern won a tight game against its in-state foe. Illinois has to wonder how it can continue to let winnable matchups fall into the loss column. If the Illini don’t regroup, they’ll join Northwestern in a very familiar place: the NIT.
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