With little but in-state pride at stake for Illinois, the scales seem poised Tuesday to lean towards a Northwestern team that finds itself in striking distance of several program milestones.
Instead, the Fighting Illini grabbed their first road win of the season, pulling out a late 68-61 victory over the suddenly-stumbling Wildcats.
Malcolm Hill led the way for Illinois (14-11, 4-8 Big Ten) with 14 points and nine rebounds, while Te’Jon Lucas, Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke each scored 11.
Against a Wildcats defense that entered Tuesday allowing a Big Ten-best 38.7 field goal percentage, Illinois shot 45.3 percent, including 42.1 percent from behind the arc.
“What we’ve been missing was shot making,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “Fortunately, tonight we were able to get that from a lot of different guys. When the ball goes in it always makes you look a little bit better.”
Bryant McIntosh paced Northwestern (18-6, 7-4) with 21 points, but he committed an uncharacteristic six turnovers while making just four assists. Vic Law had 16 points and nine rebounds, but no other Wildcat reached double figures.
With Scottie Lindsey sidelined for the second straight game with illness, Northwestern shot a season-worst 33.9 percent from the field.
“I thought we played really hard, I thought our effort was great, I thought we did a lot of good things defensively,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “But I thought offensively we had some costly turnovers and bad shots. Down the stretch, we didn’t play smart basketball.”
The Wildcats remain two victories away from their most conference wins since 1932-33 — when they won 10 — and they need three wins to become the winningest team in program history.
Most notable for Northwestern, though, is the potential breakthrough of reaching its first-ever NCAA Tournament — a pursuit that has now taken a hit with consecutive losses. Following six straight wins, the Wildcats fell Saturday to then-No. 23 Purdue 80-59.
“We have to keep our composure,” Wildcats center Dererk Pardon said. “We know it’s a long season. We fix the things we need to fix, and we’ll be good.”
Tied at 28 at halftime Tuesday, no team enjoyed more than a six-point lead in the back-and-forth second half until the game’s final moments. Lucas scored a layup with 1:37 remaining to put Illinois ahead 63-61, and Finke added to the lead with a jumper at 1:09.
Following Law’s go-ahead 3-pointer at 3:31, Northwestern missed its next three field goals and committed four turnovers.
MCINTOSH CLIMBING NATIONAL RANKS
McIntosh’s four assists Tuesday moved the junior’s career total to 496, good for the top spot among active non-seniors. He passed Lehigh’s Kahron Ross, who has 495.
LINDSEY REMAINS OUT
Lindsey missed his second consecutive contest with mononucleosis, and the team is unsure when he will return. Lindsey leads Northwestern with 16.1 points per game, and the Wildcats have scored 52 and 61 points in his absence, two of their three lowest point totals this season.
“We’re going to have to figure it out,” Collins said. “I don’t know how long Scottie’s going to be out. We have to keep playing. Everyone is dealing with some guys that are injured, some guys that are missing games. We have to figure it out.”
Illinois: Despite yet another poor shooting performance from Hill — his third straight game under 40 percent — the senior continues to be a bright spot in trying times for the Fighting Illini. His efforts on Tuesday moved him into sole possession of 8th place on Illinois’ all-time scoring list with 1,665, passing Mark Smith and Brandon Paul.
Northwestern: The Wildcats inch ever closer to their first NCAA Tournament berth, but their first back-to-back losses since Dec. 30 and Jan. 5 have derailed momentum. The upcoming schedule provides little relief, too, as Northwestern’s next two are against the Big Ten’s best — No. 7 Wisconsin and No. 21 Maryland.
Illinois: Hosts Penn State on Saturday.
Northwestern: Travels to Wisconsin on Sunday.