What was that? A first half featuring better than 70% 3-point shooting. Money free throw shooting down the stretch. Solid defensive rebounding against a high flying opponent. And ultimately. a wire-to-wire 68-54 win against a Top 25 team, an extreme rarity in the Bill Carmody era and just our sixth win in the 50-year-old former house of horrors. Cripes, we scored only four field goals in the entire second half and won by 14! Let’s try and break it down as NU moves to 11-7 and 2-3 in the B1G.
Dave Revsine hammered home the Jared Swopshire factor and BTN laid out a graphic showing how strong his stats are in our now 11 wins and how poor his play is in our 7 losses. But, that would be too simple to pin this win on his back alone. Reggie Hearn looked like his old self in the same building that he tore it up in last year. He had a strong first half mixing up solid shooting with impressive drives to the hole and finished the night just superbly from the line, leading all scorers with 22 points on the back of 11/12 free throw shooting. Alex Marcotullio, while having a troublesome night ball handling was clutch with three point shooting. Swop indeed was aggressive and like Hearn, mixed up attacking the basket with some key jump shots. And of course, there was our steady Eddie, David Sobolewski, who really managed this game like a seasoned quarterback while also possibly setting a record for fouling out a game while picking up a first foul so late in a game.
As the jaded Northwestern fan, Northwestern’s first half double-digit lead seemed to be fleeting. I kept waiting for the Illini surge fueled by an antsy packed orange-clad house. Every time a mini-run came, the ‘Cats answered. Whether it was a Marcotullio three, or a late Swopshire traditional three, the ‘Cats answered. As lost as we looked in Iowa, we looked confident. The unsung hero in this game, to me, was Tre Demps, whose lack of more playing time is still mystifying.
The Illini opened the second half in two gears stronger than they did in the first half and seemed poised to mount a comeback. They forced Sobo and our guards to start the offense near half court. Yet, when Demps was in the game, he had the quickness and ball handling skills to challenge and penetrate. He is so clearly the guy who can create off the ball and just a few touches on the perimeter seemed to inject team confidence. Really though, he won the day at the free throw line. Tre scored 10 points and went 6-6 down the stretch from the free throw line and seemed to set the tone for our best free throw shooting night in recent memory. We shot 83.9% from the line and exactly 50% from the floor and 50% (8-16) from three point land. When you include all of the elements we know so well, the injuries, the talent, it is one of the more remarkable wins for Carmody. For historical context, it was the first time since 1959-1961 that we have won back-to-back games in Champaign.
The ‘Cats struggled mightily to score from the field in the second half, however you have to give the ‘Cats credit for pretty stellar defense. The Illini also contributed with a continued disturbing trend of miserable 3-point shooting going just 3-20 for the night. Again, credit to NU, but also the live-by-the-three die-by-the-three Illini approach is all too familiar to us (read: see Iowa) and on this night it was killer for the Illini. It was so sweet to enjoy a double-digit lead that didn’t feel like we were clinging to the edge of the bridge like we did against Baylor. As a program, there simply aren’t many nights like this and it brings sheer joy when they come. Let’s hope we get more. Congrats to the ‘Cats who now return home to face #2 Indiana at Welsh-Ryan on Sunday. As you read over and over on the BTN graphic, perhaps that is not a good thing. Northwestern has now won 4 of the last 5 conference road games.