Similar to the 1998-99 game, the Wildcats had a record of 16-9 when they hosted the #16 Fighting Illini on February 23, 2002. With that 16-9 record and the chance to get a win over a top 20 team, the whispers of NCAA tournament had started being heard throughout campus on that Saturday morning. I knew a number of folks who hadn’t attended a game all season who made the trek to Welsh-Ryan that day in hopes of watching NU post a program defining win. A ton of Illinois fans were in attendance, but it looked as if NU would counter Illini Nation by two full student sections. The students were particularly revved up as it was senior day in Evanston and to honor Wildcat seniors Tavaras Hardy and Collier Drayton the entire Wildcat roster mirrored the senior’s style by wearing headbands. Some of the Wildcats looked really odd with the headgear, but it was a great example of team camaraderie and one had to hope that combined with great fan support it would buoy the Wildcats to an upset win. It didn’t happen. Actually, NU’s fans barely got to cheer at all.
From start to finish, the Wildcats were totally dominated by Illinois. Although Illinois star Frank Williams shot poorly and only totaled 7 points—the entire NU roster shot worse. Northwestern didn’t hit a three pointer (0-for-17) and was only 13-of-30 from the free throw line. That’s right. 13-of-30 from the line. Whatever complaints one might have about this season’s free throw shooting, it hasn’t been anywhere near that atrocious. Illinois led 35-13 at halftime, and about the only positive I recall from the entire game was Tavaras Hardy getting a putback of a missed Winston Blake three for the first basket of the second half. For an instant I thought that might start an NU run. The crowd went crazy for an instant, but Sean Harrington quickly answered Hardy’s putback with a three for the Illini. Northwestern actually did win the second half, but their awful shooting and woeful first half defense never got them back in the game. Illinois won 56-41.
Given the excitement entering that game, I think it might have been the most deflating loss I’ve felt as an NU fan. The Wildcats were 5-2 at home in the Big Ten entering that game and had actually managed to handily defeat a number of other conference teams. Illinois, while talented, didn’t seem to be much better than Michigan State or Iowa. For whatever reason, though, NU just didn’t have it. They played fine defense, but the guys who hit shots all year didn’t hit that day. They actually didn’t hit much the rest of the year. The once 16-9 ‘Cats finished 16-13 and stayed home for the NIT. The first Big Ten team in 125 tries to have a winning record and not make the NIT. And how did the downward spiral start? With the Illini. It’s time on Thursday to pay them back. This is the biggest game in Welsh-Ryan since 2002. Let’s counter all the Illinois fans who will show with loud NU fans all over the lower sections of Welsh-Ryan.