After seemingly eons (or at least three years) of waiting for Northwestern get a road win over an opponent who was respectable, Northwestern pulled out a very solid 74-70 win over Illinois on Sunday. For the record, I want to note that if you check my prediction while I thought it would be a lower scoring game, despite my feelings about how disappointing NU has been this season, I did predict that the Wildcats would win this contest. Now as to the team itself, this was a great win for NU and it was critical that NU got solid production from all six players who played meaningful minutes. It wasn’t always in points as David Curletti got one point and Alex Marcotullio got two, but those guys impacted the game on defense and with rebounding while John Shurna, Reggie Hearn, Dave Sobolewski, and Drew Crawford combined to score enough points to push the ‘Cats to victory.
I think Illinois did NU something of a favor in not subbing all that much and thus not gaining any significant advantage due to NU’s lack of depth and by not giving the ball to Myers Leonard every time down the court. However, NU took advantage of that much more than they might of in the past and ran the offense with total perfection in the second half which resulted in many easy looks for John Shurna who finished 11-of-15 from field and moved into second place on NU’s all-time scoring chart. It also caused NU to avoid any prolonged scoring drought which stretched for 5-10 minutes as we saw the first time these teams played.
The well run offense also led to some chances for Dave Sobolewski to get to the basket and aside from missing a couple free throws I actually thought this was his most assertive offensive game since NU’s big win over Michigan State (I’d note that him being so assertive and NU winning big games probably isn’t a coincidence). He not only drove the lane late in the shot clock but in fact tried to make things happen by attacking the goal at many times in many ways. As a result, Reggie Hearn benefited with some open threes which he knocked down in the first half and with some very nice backdoor layups as well. I also thought that Drew Crawford played a pretty good overall game. He didn’t seem to force as many shots and he led NU with four assists in the game.
In the end, though, I think this game was won on defense. Yes, Illinois might have won if they’d given Leonard more shots, but the ‘Cats coaching staff did nice job calling switching defenses which at times seemed to confuse Illinois. I also thought that for the most part NU at least made it difficult for Illinois to get the pass they wanted. Yes, sometimes they got that pass, but it wasn’t easy and they were forced to really work. That paid off once NU made them work equally hard on defense and is part of the reason for the late backdoors. Those backdoors and Shurna’s attacking the glass also led to NU scoring more points in the paint despite Leonard’s dominate performance. That’s huge and it shows that Northwestern can be more than a three point shooting team. That’s a good lesson for NU long term and while this game isn’t the type of win that makes NU as nationally relevant as the Michigan State win, it is a game that will keep NU fans interested and hopefully help fill Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday when Iowa comes to town.