CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- It's beginning to look a lot like last season for Illinois.
Northwestern got 20 points from senior guard Reggie Hearn and led wire-to-wire Thursday night in a 68-54 upset of the 23rd-ranked Fighting Illini, their third consecutive Big Ten Conference defeat.
Illinois (14-5, 1-4) got 21 points from senior guard Brandon Paul, but again shot poorly and never found a way to stop the Wildcats until it was too late to matter. Frustration seeped into the Illini's second half effort as center Nnanna Egwu and coach John Groce drew technicals, while referee Jim Burr ejected a fan.
Fans worrying about a repeat of last year's collapse, when Illinois started 15-3 and finished 17-15 to get coach Bruce Weber fired, couldn't have felt any better about this performance. Some headed for the exits at the last TV timeout, their team down 50-39 and simply unable to generate anything offensively.
The Illini converted just 38.8 percent of their field goal attempts and made only 3-of-20 on 3-pointers. In five conference games, they have canned just 26-of-111 from the arc (23.4 percent).
Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire added 12 points for Northwestern, including a three-point play with 3:06 remaining to give the Wildcats an insurmountable 53-41 cushion.
Northwestern roared out of the gates, scoring on its first four possessions and establishing a 10-3 lead to quiet the Assembly Hall crowd. It gradually expanded the cushion to 18-11 by the second TV timeout and 25-14 with 7:29 left in the first half.
Illinois fans booed loudly when Kale Abrahamson scored on a textbook back-cut off Dave Sobolewski's alert feed, giving the Wildcats a 34-17 cushion with 3:09 before halftime.
The first half's last sequence summed things up perfectly for the Illini. Rebounding D.J. Richardson's missed 3-pointer, they held for the last shot, but Tracy Abrams clanged a wild runner in the lane and Sam McLaurin's putback was blocked by the bottom of the rim as time expired. That left the halftime score at 36-21.
NOTES: Illinois has scored 70 points or more 12 times this season, going 11-1 in those games. The only time it lost in that circumstance was on Dec. 22 against Missouri in St. Louis. ... Northwestern entered the night ranked 7th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.47. Its total of 186 turnovers in the first 17 games is lowest in the Big Ten. ... Paul has been named one of 25 semifinalists for the Wooden Award. Paul came into this game averaging 18.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.