Giorgi Bezhanishvili took stock of his Illinois teammates, looked into their eyes — into their very souls? — and decided all was right in the world.
The Illini were huddled near their bench Wednesday night before the overtime period of a 74-69 victory against Northwestern at the United Center. Bezhanishvili, the dancing bear of a freshman, was done for the game with 26 points, having fouled out.
“But I saw the look on their faces during the timeout,” he said, all smiles. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m not worried.’ ”
That made one person in the building who had any idea what was going to happen in the final five minutes of a game that was nip-and-tuck from the first bounce to the last, desperate moments. In a season when both the No. 11-seeded Illini (12-20) and the No. 14-seeded Wildcats (13-19) have been beyond disappointing, at least the teams created some excitement on the opening night of the Big Ten tournament.
The Illini will face No. 6 seed Iowa — which hammered them by 24 points in the teams’ only meeting this season — on Thursday.
The upper level of the UC was completely empty for this battle of purported archrivals, but the atmosphere on the whole more than got the job done as a first taste of March Madness.
Bezhanishvili carried the Illini early, scoring their first 14 points of the game. When he banked in a free throw to put his team up 9-6, he laughed the whole way back down to the defensive end. On his final bucket, for a 56-53 lead, he picked off a pass near midcourt and knifed between Wildcats defenders Aaron Falzon and Dererk Pardon for an impressive finish.
Trent Frazier, who had 21, grabbed the flag when needed most and kept charging uphill in the late stages. The sophomore guard’s three-pointer from the left corner in overtime put the Illini ahead to stay.
“They trust me down the stretch to make a play for myself or my teammates,” Frazier said. “That’s what I did.”
The Wildcats got 20 points from freshman A.J. Turner and 17 — in his last two-plus hours in purple — from senior big man Pardon. Northwestern was without top player Vic Law, the former St. Rita star who sat out with a lacerated knee suffered in a loss to Purdue on Saturday.
Northwestern essentially has come unglued in two seasons since making the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history. Coach Chris Collins’ team lost 12 of its last 13 games — even worse than the Wildcats’ seven straight losses to end last season.
“The record isn’t where we want it to be,” Collins said. “There’s no mistaking any of that. We’re going to work.”
• Not even Illini, Cats can spoil a Big Ten Tournament in Chicago
How distant that 2017 success seems now, after a last-place Big Ten finish that was all too reminiscent of the dark ages of Northwestern basketball.
“We’ve [won] before, and we’re going to do it again,” Collins said. “I promise you that — we’re going to do it again.”
The Illini, who haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2013 and haven’t won a Big Ten postseason title since 2005, still have a faint sparkle of life. It’s better than nothing.
In the early game, No. 13 seed Nebraska topped No. 12 seed Rutgers 68-61. The Cornhuskers will face No. 5 seed Maryland on Thursday.