Northwestern got the win they so desperately needed.
On Saturday afternoon with their game being shown on CBS, the Wildcats jumped out to a 9-0 lead on Illinois and, despite the Illini coming back to tie the game twice, Northwestern never gave up that lead. Juice Thompson finished with 22 points to lead the team, and Northwestern left Welsh-Ryan Arena with a well-deserved 71-70 win.
Thompson wasn’t only the leading scorer for the Wildcats, he was also the savior.
Midway through the second half, Illinois made a run. Northwestern had opened their biggest lead of the game, 53-41, but the Illini responded. Demetri McCamey and company started driving the basketball against the Northwestern defense, going on a 12-0 run to tie the game.
But over the next four minutes, Thompson hit three huge threes in an 11-4 run that opened up a 64-57 lead with two mintues left. Those threes afforded the Wildcats some breathing room, as turnovers and missed free throws allowed Illinois to get two possessions down just three points.
For Illinois, it just furthers the notion that this is a team with plenty of talent but pieces that just aren’t fitting together. They have now lost five of their last seven games, a stretch that includes road losses to Penn State, Indiana, and now Northwestern.
The question that is going to start being asked about the Illini is where the stand in terms of the bubble. This team does have some solid wins — Wisconsin, Maryland, Michigan State, and at Gonzaga — but nothing overly impressive, and certainly not enough to force the committee to discount those three losses (plus a loss to Illinois-Chicago) like they did with Georgetown last season.
Bruce Weber needs his team, and Demetri McCamey, to be more aggressive. Over this seven game stretch, McCamey — who some believed was the best point guard in the country coming into the season — 11.3 ppg, 5.6 apg, and 3.1 t/o’s while shooting just 28% from the floor and 29% from three. He hasn’t made more than four field goals in a game since December.
It was that same kind of inconsistency from their star that did the Illini in last season.
McCamey just doesn’t appear to be a leader.
Ironically, while this loss puts Illinois’ bubble status in a more precarious position, it moves Northwestern that much closer to the conversation. The Wildcats still have plenty of work to do. They are 4-7 in a Big Ten that is much more mediocre than we thought it would be. But the good news is that their schedule gets significantly easier down the stretch. Their next five games are against Michigan, Penn State (twice), Indiana, and Iowa. They also get another chance against Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Its a long shot, yes, but if Northwestern can get hot, they still have a shot at making their first NCAA Tournament.
Can this win over Illinois be the spark that they need?
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.