Alan Griffin relaxed with his headphones on and chilled out in bed. By the time he stepped on the court a few hours later, he sure was in tune.
Griffin set career highs with 24 points and six 3-pointers, Ayo Dosunmu scored 21 and Illinois beat struggling Northwestern 74-66 on Thursday night at Welsh Ryan Arena.
The Illini (19-9, 11-6 Big Ten) moved into a tie for second place in the Big Ten behind Maryland. They took the lead with a big run in the first half and held off last-place Northwestern (6-21, 1-16) down the stretch to win their third straight since a four-game slide that knocked them out of the Top 25.
The Wildcats lost their 12th straight, their worst skid since they dropped 12 in a row during the 1999-2000 season.
Griffin played 21 minutes and made 6 of 8 from beyond the arc, including three during a three-minute stretch in the second half to help Illinois build a 16-point lead. The sophomore is averaging 13 points while making 16 of 30 3-pointers in his last six games.
“Today, I had a different approach,” he said.
Griffin was more relaxed. He listened to music, “zoned out” and had a “good meal” — mac and cheese, mashed potatoes and chicken fingers.
“I’m going to stick with that,” Griffin said.
He had plenty of help from Dosunmu, who made 7 of 12 shots. Kofi Cockburn finished 12 points and 14 rebounds.
In their third season under coach Brad Underwood, the Illini matched their highest conference win total since the 2008-09 team went 11-7 in Big Ten play on the way to a 24-10 overall record. The turnaround comes after they finished 14-18 and 12-21 in his first two years.
“It’s just growth, it’s a process,” Underwood said. “You don’t just turn around and you’ve got your house built. You’ve got to start with the foundation, you’ve got to dig a hole. That’s not fun. That’s not fun. We had some hiccups. We had some speed bumps. That locker room is incredible.”
Pat Spencer led Northwestern with 18 points, and Miller Kopp scored 14. The Wildcats made just 5 of 20 3-pointers in remaining winless since they beat Nebraska at home on Jan. 11.
“Tough loss,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “I think our guys have shown they’re gonna keep fighting. I know they’re definitely frustrated because there’s a lot of guys putting a lot into this and we just haven’t been able to get over the hump.”
It was 51-44 midway through the second half when Griffin threw down an alley-oop dunk and Giorgi Bezhanishvili got credited with a put-back on a ball that Northwestern’s Jared Jones might have tipped.
Griffin made three 3-pointers in a span of about three minutes as Illinois bumped its lead to 64-48, drawing loud cheers from their orange-clad fans.
Dosunmu scored 13 in the first half and the 7-foot Cockburn dominated down low with 10 points and seven rebounds as Illinois jumped out to a 34-26 lead.
The Illini took the lead with a 21-5 run that Griffin started with a layup and finished with a 3-pointer to make it 29-16. Trent Frazier hit a runner to make it an eight-point game with 14 seconds left before Spencer missed a turnaround jumper.
Illinois: The schedule takes a tougher turn for the Illini, with games against Indiana, No. 23 Ohio State and No. 18 Iowa before the Big Ten Tournament. But this was a solid effort overall. They outrebounded Northwestern 42-29 and had 19 assists with just eight eight turnovers.
Northwestern: The Wildcats came in ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring and among the worst in field-goal and 3-point percentage. They certainly missed their share of open shots in this one.
“I think we’re getting there. I think this is the Big Ten and everybody goes through a losing streak. Somebody mentioned this arguably is the best league in the country. You can forget that. There’s no arguing about that. This is the best league in the country and you’ve got to play every single night.” — Underwood on Illinois’ turnaround after losing four straight.
Illinois: The Illini host Indiana on Sunday.
Northwestern: The Wildcats will try to stop their streak against the team they most recently beat when they visit Nebraska on Sunday.