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Friday, Jan. 16

Illinois falls apart in the second half

By Greg Taylor       Send a link to a friend

[JAN. 16, 2004]  How would Illinois respond? With pride or with pouting? With passion or would they be passive once again? These were the questions on the minds on many in Illini Nation as the beloved prepared to take on a surprising Northwestern squad Wednesday night in Evanston. Illinois was coming off a disappointing and rare home loss on Saturday to Purdue, while the Wildcats stunned the Big Ten world, beating Iowa in the Hawkeye state by nine -- Iowa's only loss in conference play this season. Many were afraid the "tough love" tactics of coach Bruce Weber might push the team in the wrong direction.

In reality, it may have been just what the doctor ordered, at least early, as Illinois exploded out of the gate to an early 17-5 lead behind strong shooting from guard Deron Williams, who made his first three shots of the game, including two from long distance. Junior Roger Powell continued his early struggles, picking up two quick fouls, but Weber showed confidence in the Joliet native, allowing him to play through the foul trouble, and Powell responded with two nice slams off feeds from Williams and the reinstated Luther Head. Things were looking good, and one had to wonder, "Was all well once again for the Illini?" The answer to this question would prove disappointing.

Northwestern refused to roll over and play dead, as they went on their strong 20-8 run to catch the Illini and tie the game at 25-all at the 7:47 mark of the first half. The Cats got long-distance bombs from three different players during this run and found themselves with new life as the crazies at Welsh-Ryan went nuts. Lisle's T.J. Parker was able to use his quickness early in the game to get to the hoop and cause problems for the Illini. His seven early points kept Northwestern in the game. They also received strong play from Vedran Vukusic, who scored eight points during the run. The Cats even took the lead at 27-25 on a Vukusic layup before Dee Brown hit back-to-back 3s, James Augustine converted a hook shot, and Brown connected on an NBA 3 to stake Illinois to a 36-27 lead. The teams traded buckets late in the half, and at the break Illinois led by nine, 38-29. Illinois was led in scoring during the first half by Dee Brown, who paced them with 14 points. Illinois looked to be in good shape as they headed into the break.

Oh, what a difference a half can make! Northwestern took a page from Illinois and jumped out quickly in the second half, going on a 15-5 run and claiming a 44-43 lead at the 15:50 mark of the game. Illinois appeared as if they were still in the locker room, and once again they found themselves in a very tight game in a hostile environment. Davor Duvancic was huge for the Cats coming out of the break, as he scored the first seven points of the half for the Cats and led them in scoring during the final 20 minutes.

Illinois continued to launch 3-pointers in the second half instead of pushing the ball inside, and Northwestern found themselves ahead at 56-52 with 7:42 to go, while Illinois looked like they were destined for a 1-2 Big Ten start. By contrast, 6-2 Jitim Young was able to get the hoop on a consistent basis during this time and Illinois seemed to have no answer.

 

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Weber called timeout to try and settle the troops, but Illinois continued to be unable to get good shots against a tough Wildcat zone. Illinois got to the foul line several times, but they were unable to convert. Smith missed two, Powell missed a pair and Luther Head was able to make only one of two. With 5:12 to go, Illinois trailed by five, and it looked like it would take a perfect final five minutes to avoid the loss.

When Duvancac made a 3 that hit the rim, bounced straight up in the air and then found its way into the hoop, it looked like it just was not meant to be for the Illini on this night. With 3:11 to play, Illinois trailed by eight and couldn't even get into their offense.

Illinois had chances late but couldn't make free throws or 3s down the stretch, and Northwestern cruised to a 70-60 victory. As the crowd began to chant "overrated," it looked as if they were right on the money.

Illinois is in trouble and I'm not sure they are prepared to find the solutions to their problems. Just one week ago, the talk was about a 5-0 conference start and another Big Ten conference title. Right now, I not sure Illinois can beat Iowa at home this Saturday. WOW -- what a difference a week makes.

Illini news and notes

--The win broke Illinois' eight-game winning streak against Northwestern. The Illini had not lost at Northwestern since the Lou Henson era!

--Illinois has fared well in Welsh-Ryan arena in past seasons, especially on defense. Illinois held the Cats to an average of 40 points per game in victories during the 2000, 2001 and 2002 season. The 70 points Illinois gave up were the most Northwestern scored at home against the Illini in a decade.

--Last season, the teams met twice at the United Center, both Illinois victories, but didn't play at either the Assembly Hall or Welsh-Ryan in an odd scheduling quirk.

--Nick Smith's streak of consecutive free throws made ended at 20. Smith made two free throws early in the second half before missing to end the streak.

--Illinois only shot one free throw in the first half, missing it, and could not make a free throw in the second half, almost, making just 6-of-14 and missing on two different one-and-one opportunities. For the game, Illinois shot a terrible 6-of-15 from the line -- 40 percent. The junior high teams in Logan County do better than that from the line.

--Illinois returns to action Saturday morning against the 2-1 Iowa Hawkeyes. The game is set for 11 a.m. and can be seen on ESPN.

[Greg Taylor]

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