Illinois made the three hour drive north to Evanston yesterday to take on Northwestern, a team in the top third of the B1G, poised to have one of their best seasons ever, and make the tournament for their first time. Even with NU’s leading scorer out with an illness, all predictions pointed to Northwestern running away with this one, moving one step closer to the Big Dance.

But that’s not how it happened!

Illinois started slow (again…), shooting 1-8 on their first nine FG’s, going down only a couple of buckets early thanks to NU’s slow start as well. As NU built a two or three bucket lead early on, it looked as though Illinois would pull yet another road disappearing act, with their game nowhere to be found. But again, that’s not how it happened! Illinois would go on a 15-0 run thanks to the likes of the young guys. NU would go on a run of their own in the last couple minutes of the first half, as both teams headed into the locker room tied at 28.

The second half was a very entertaining half of basketball, and was definitely one of the highest qualify half’s Illinois has played all season long, particularly given the talent of the opponent. The second half stayed within a two or three possession game for the entire time, with the two teams exchanging offensive blows. Not until within the final two minutes of the game did the Illini manage to finally pull away, thanks to a nice defensive inbounds play and a couple of FT’s.

Player Notes

Aaron Jordan: Just want to highlight that AJ started today. He played in the first four minutes of the game, didn’t score, and that was it for him. I know that this was frustrating for Illini fans to see yet another rotation change, especially at this phase of the season. Maybe JG was trying to light a fire under the behind of JCL. Maybe he thought AJ would all of a sudden produce against NU’s defense. Who knows.

Malcolm: Had 14 points but I think he helped Illinois the most on defense today. Didn’t need to really take over (although again, I would love for him to do so).

Kipper: One thing I noticed about Kipper today versus some of the games he’s struggled in is his shot selection. He didn’t take silly off balance fadeaway shots. He’s drove to the paint, he took wide open shots thanks to great passes from TJL. He started in the second half, (maybe one more rotation change?) and I’m loving the minutes he’s getting. The experience he is getting on the right now is invaluable as he’s going to marginally improve by the start of next season.

TJL: 11 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists. Yes. TJL was feeling it yesterday and he showed why he should be starting and playing extended minutes. He played 33 minutes tonight. Nope, that’s not a typo Illini fans. JG didn’t put Tate out there for even a moment and let TJL play extended minutes. I’d like to think that if Groce doesn’t keep Lucas out there for that long, and plays Tracy and/or Tate for some of those minutes, the offensive production, the passing, the vision isn’t there, and Illinois doesn’t necessarily hold on to the W.

Mav: Mav did a great job on guarding NU’s big men and didn’t allow them to get too physical in the paint (12 total points in the paint for Northwestern tonight).

What I loved: JG rode the hot hand, and he played the BEST players today (maybe excluding the interesting decision to start AJ for 4 minutes). Listen to these minute totals: Hill 36, Morgan 36, Lucas 33, Kipper 16, Finke 22. This is such a relief for people that have been yelling at their television sets when Illinois goes up in a game, only to rigidly sub out half the squad for the likes of guys that aren’t playing well, yet are scheduled to be substituted in.

What I hated: It was a game of runs for both teams. Illinois did a really great job of going on runs and stopping NU from scoring for several minutes, but you can’t let teams do that to you. Illinois went on multiple scoring draughts of multiple minutes each. Illinois started slowly again, and they were lucky NU didn’t put up 12 or 14 points by the time Illinois got its offense going.

Overall: I’m not going to dramatically change what I think about our team, our coach, or our players after the game. You still can’t ignore how we play at times, and you definitely can’t ignore the standings or our realistic odds at making the tournament. This was the first quality B1G win for Illinois (coming without NU’s leading scorer, mind you), and Illinois will probably have to win out and win a B1G tournament game or two to make NCAA’s. It’s one win, and pretty late in the season, so I’m going to remain unfortunately skeptical about our chances.

Whats next: Illinois is back in action this Saturday at the State Farm Center as the Fighting Illini welcome Penn State.

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