When a team hasn’t had a lot of success, they naturally accumulate a lot of disappointing losses. For Northwestern, some of the most disappointing are against intrastate rival Illinois. Perhaps the most depressing of these losses occurred during the 1998-99 season. As we prepare for this week’s game against Illinois, I’d like to take the time to review some past Illinois games and discuss why the NU basketball program desperately needs a clutch win against Illinois. These recaps should make it clear why an NU upset of Illinois Thursday would not only be big for this year, but also historically. Whenever NU seems to have any hope of the NCAA tournament, it always seems Illinois gets in the way. That was the case in 1999 and 2002. Hopefully, these recaps will get the newer NU fans pumped to show up at Welsh-Ryan on Thursday and root NU to a huge win over the Illini.
The contest between Northwestern and Illinois on February 17, 1999 is strikingly similar in circumstance to the game which will occur Thursday. Northwestern entered the game in 1999 with a record of 14-8 and an outside chance to make it to the NCAA tournament. Before the game, many experts said the game with the Illini was a must win if NU wanted to play in the Big Dance. Before the game, NU coach Kevin O’Neil tried to deflect the pressure of the must win label. He pointed out to several media outlets that it wasn’t as if a loss would equal death, however, even the glib O’Neil had to know a loss would equal death to NU’s NCAA aspirations.
The good news for Northwestern was that Illinois entered the game only 10-15. With a young squad, the Illini had struggled much of the year. It seemed NU’s tournament hopes would at least last another day. When Northwestern jumped out to a 37-29 halftime lead it looked as if NU was in position to put away the young Illini. Though I was pretty young at the time, I do clearly remember thinking that NU seemed to be doing a great job of handling the pressure of the “must win” scenario. With Evan Eschmeyer scoring nearly at will inside, things looked good for NU’s postseason hopes.
Unfortunately, in the second half NU’s ability to get the ball to Eschmeyer was neutralized by a well-played Illinois zone defense. Coach Lon Kruger lived up to his reputation as an excellent defensive X’s and O’s coach and stopped Eschmeyer from getting the ball. With Eschmeyer surrounded by two and three Illini at a time, the Wildcats ability to hold the lead fell to NU’s young guards Steve Lepore and David Newman. They struggled. NU shot only 29% from behind the arch in the second half and what was once an eight point halftime lead narrowed. It was evident the “must win” pressure was settling on NU while the last place Illini felt no such worries. When NU’s narrow 57-55 lead disappeared thanks to a Corey Bradford three pointer, the life seemed to drain from the NU fans in Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Illinois fans, and of course there were plenty of them, had the opposite reaction. They went crazy and propelled their team to victory. Thanks to a collection of missed shots and fouls, the final margin of victory was 69-63 for Illinois. Let’s hope Thursday is a little different.