Northwestern over Illinois in OT? This rivalry could use more of that

SHARE Northwestern over Illinois in OT? This rivalry could use more of that

Northwestern players celebrate in overtime as their victory over Illinois was sealed. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Is it over yet?

It was hard not to wonder that throughout Northwestern’s 72-68 overtime victory Friday against Illinois at Allstate Arena. Were the Wildcats (5-3) in, as crazy as it sounds, must-win territory already? With expectations of returning to the NCAA tournament after their first-ever appearance last season, was a reality check in order?

They came into the teams’ Big Ten opener with losses already to Creighton, Texas Tech and Georgia Tech. How damaging would a fourth one to the Illini (6-2) have been? After months last season spent chewing on the Big Dance question, it only would have seemed fair to ask of their back-to-back tourney dream:

Is it over yet?

Well, no, it’s not. For another day, the dream lives.

‘‘We viewed this game as a must-win; we really did,’’ NU coach Chris Collins said. ‘‘We have not been at our best. It’s no secret.’’


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And speaking of March, wasn’t it something to find Illinois in Rosemont? The Illini last played here in 2005, and they found themselves in quite the precarious position: down 15 points to Arizona with four minutes to go in an Elite Eight game that was going down the tubes.

But then it didn’t. Illinois staged a miraculous comeback. Scissors came out, and nets were cut. It was a moment of glory for a program that hasn’t seen many of those since. What there have been instead is four consecutive NCAA tournaments missed, an unacceptable lot new coach Brad Underwood was brought in to rectify.

It might take him awhile, but Illini fans are riding a wave of belief. And there’s something impressive about a coach who walks into a rival’s gym — even a temporary one, with more fans of the visiting team in attendance — sees about one-third of the seats empty and tells it like it is.

‘‘How many empty seats were there tonight? That’s not acceptable,’’ Underwood said. ‘‘True rivalries? It’s about passion.’’

It was only Dec. 1 — a full month earlier than Big Ten games have gotten underway before — but something about this time in the rivalry’s history really seemed to matter.

The Wildcats make a big deal — and rightfully so — of the fact their football and basketball teams were ranked in major polls at the same time last month. But what this rivalry needs far more than that is for NU and Illinois to be ranked at the same time. Such a time might feel a long way away, but the whole idea at both schools these days is to get there.

An overtime game might be something to build on. The Wildcats’ Dererk Pardon made the big block and teammate Isiah Brown made the two free throws that sealed the victory, but there were players on both sides who rose to the moment.

Illini guards Te’Jon Lucas and Mark Alstork (14 points each) converted several high-degree-of-difficulty drives to the rim. NU junior Vic Law (16 points) threw down massive dunks, and senior Scottie Lindsey (22 points) clawed out of his shooting slump.

The Wildcats trailed by eight in the first half but fought their way back. Illinois kept charging throughout the second half. It was flawed, frenetic and fun, a heck of a night.

Unfortunately, it was the only time these teams will play this season unless they meet in the Big Ten tournament. That changes as the league goes from an 18-game schedule to 20 games next season. The Illini and Wildcats will play twice a year, every year — as it should be.

Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.


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