CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP)—Northwestern had battled back from an early 12-point deficit to tie No. 14 Illinois with 16:53 to play. It was time for Dee Brown to go to work.
After making just one of his four shots in the first half, Brown went on a seven-point scoring spree. He drained a long 3-pointer and, on the next trip down the court, was fouled while making another and converted the free throw for a four-point play.
Brown’s spurt gave the Illini a 36-29 lead and sent them on to a 63-47 victory Wednesday night.
The spark of energy was just what the Illini (21-4, 7-4 Big Ten) needed after two straight losses and struggling against Northwestern’s zone defense much of the night.
“I think that’s what we’ve been emphasizing. Energy. Enthusiasm. Just have fun,” said Brown, who finished with 16 points. “You’ve got to have fun playing basketball. We’ve got to bring the fun back.”
Even after Brown’s rally, Northwestern (12-11, 4-7) mounted a final push with a 12-2 run that trimmed a 13-point lead to three. But Illinois answered with 14 straight points to put the game away.
“Our guys were worn out,” Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said. “It just seemed they were a little fresher than we were.”
Northwestern played without top scorer Vedran Vukusic, who had been averaging 20.2 points per game. His string of 81 consecutive starts snapped because of pain in his lower back that began earlier in the week. Carmody said he would be evaluated on Thursday.
“Obviously, we need his contribution on offense. He’s been a great scorer for us,” said Mohamed Hachad, who led the Wildcats with 17 points. “If you’re going to come back and score on offense, he’s a big target and we didn’t have him tonight.”
The Illini, who had lost consecutive games for the first time in two seasons, jumped out to a 15-3 lead but Hachad hit two 3s and the Wildcats took advantage of sloppy Illinois play to keep the game from getting away.
“We have not dealt with early leads very well,” coach Bruce Weber said. “Once they made their little run we got very tentative. Almost like playing on eggshells.”
Rich McBride led Illinois with 17 points, including going 4-of-8 from 3-point range. Brian Randle added 10 points, including a thunderous putback dunk of a miss by Brown that brought the Assembly Hall crowd to its feet and gave Illinois a 55-45 lead with 4:29 to go.
Then Warren Carter hit two free throws, James Augustine had a breakaway dunk and McBride hit his fourth 3-pointer to put the Illini up 62-45.
“To get a dunk like that or a dunk like James’, it really breaks the other team’s spirit,” Randle said. “It’s a huge swing of emotion in the game.”
Illinois took the 15-3 lead behind two 3-pointers and a jumper from McBride and baskets from Augustine and Shaun Pruitt. But Northwestern held Illinois scoreless for a 5:25 stretch of the first half and battled back to trail 27-20 at halftime.
The Wildcats wiped out that deficit in the first 3:07 of the second half and tied the game on Vince Scott’s two free throws before Brown went on his seven-point run.