EVANSTON, Ill. (AP)—Dee Brown feels the pressure. The expectations on Illinois are high and how far the Illini go largely hinges on their point guard’s performance, which hadn’t been great lately.
“I’ve got to continue to play well. We’re a better team when I play well. That’s the pressure of being an athlete,” Brown said.
Brown broke out of his shooting slump with 18 points and had eight assists to lead No. 7 Illinois to a 58-47 victory over Northwestern on Saturday.
After shooting a combined 9 of 39 in the previous three games, Brown was 6-for-10 and 2-for-5 from 3-point range, banking one from the top as the shot clock expired just over seven minutes into the game.
Rich McBride added 12 points, and Shaun Pruitt grabbed 10 rebounds for the Illini (17-2, 3-2 Big Ten).
Coming off a 62-60 loss Tuesday at No. 13 Indiana, Illinois hit 9-of-23 3-pointers.
Northwestern (9-8, 2-4) shot 35 percent (17-for-48) on its way to its fourth straight loss.
Mohamed Hachad scored all of his 14 points in the second half for Northwestern. Leading scorer Vedran Vukusic missed his first 13 shots and scored a season-low five points, his first game in single digits. His first basket was a 3-pointer that pulled Northwestern to within 53-43 with 1:37 left in the game.
But the Illini hung on.
“We’ve got to decide are we going forward?” coach Bruce Weber said. “Are we going to be special? Or are we just going to be OK?”
A year ago, Illinois was special. It reached the NCAA finals for the first time.
Weber said the Illini are better defensively than offensively.
“These guys know how important it is,” Weber said. “We’re locked in. We’ve done a nice job. We can’t let our offense affect our defense. We break down on the defensive end because somebody misses a shot and they don’t run back. Or they don’t communicate.”
Despite a 121-34 series advantage and a three-game sweep last season, Illinois has had some difficulties at Northwestern, losing by 10 two years ago. This looked like an easy one until the Wildcats made things interesting in the second half.
With Illinois up 46-21, Northwestern went on a 14-2 run to pull to within 48-35 with 4:28 left in the game. The Wildcats cut it to 12.
Then, Vukusic hit that 3 to make it a 10-point game. Otherwise, it was a quiet game for him.
The Big Ten’s leading scorer at 20.9 points entering the game, shot 1-for-14 and had six rebounds. It was his worst game since Dec. 1, 2003, when he had three points in 32 minutes in a loss at Florida State.
He had open looks and kept missing.
“I was surprised they weren’t falling,” Vukusic said. “The guys on the team kept saying, ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot.”’
Maybe that was because they weren’t hitting their shots, either.
The Wildcats’ 17 baskets were two more than their season-low and tied for the fewest by an Illinois opponent.
Northwestern’s Vince Scott scored 30 seconds into the game, but the Wildcats missed their next six field goals over the next seven-plus minutes as Illinois opened a 13-4 lead. Brian Randle, McBride and Brown hit 3-pointers during that stretch, and Illinois never looked back.
With more than half the crowd of 8,117 decked out in orange, the Illini made themselves at home.
Illinois picked apart Northwestern’s 2-1-2 trap and took the Wildcats out of their offense. They seemed flustered and did not get the ball to Vukusic in the post.
Brown, meanwhile, found his stroke.
“I’m going to shoot ‘em, anyway,” said Brown, who was 1-for-9 against Indiana. “I’m going to go 1-for-9, 1-for-30, 1-for-50. If I don’t make one more shot this season, I’m still going to play the way I play and do the things I do.”
The only anxious moment for the Illini in the first half was when Randle caught an elbow to his forehead and fell as he tried to finish an alley-oop about nine minutes into the game. He got five stitches and returned with 2:03 left in the first half.
“I was tipping the ball around, and the next thing I know, I got an elbow,” Randle said. “I went down. I thought I had a bump. I took my hand from my head and there was blood.”
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