Hot start guides Northwestern past slumping Illinois

Bucky Dent, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

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, Illinois' third consecutive Big Ten Conference defeat.
Hearn scored 10 points in the game's first 9 minutes and 49 seconds as the Wildcats (11-7, 2-3) riddled the hosts with their Princeton-style offense. Northwestern canned its first four 3-pointers and also got to the bucket at will either off dribble penetration or back cuts.
Northwestern led by double figures for all but 49 seconds of the game's last 29 minutes, 24 seconds. Although the Wildcats made just four field goals after halftime, they held off Illinois by drilling 21 of 26 free throws.
"That was an ideal start to the game on the road," Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said. "We haven't been great shooting fouls this year, but we were able to hit them down the stretch."
The Illini (14-5, 1-4) got 21 points from senior guard Brandon Paul, but they 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 technical fouls, 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 shot only 3-for-20 on 3-pointers. Over the past five games, Illinois is 26-of-111 (23.4 percent) from beyond the arc.
"It's simple: We have to play better and coach better," Groce said. "I thought we let the opponent come out and be the aggressor. I thought the first 10 minutes, Northwestern was a juggernaut. The disappointing thing for us was that we tried to take away three or four things that we just gave them."
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. Alex Marcotullio also scored 12 for the visitors, while Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps each kicked in 10 points.
Coming off a 70-50 loss to Iowa on Sunday that had Carmody challenging his seniors to deliver a better performance, Northwestern improved to 5-1 away from home. Carmody said his team would stay in a hotel the night before its Sunday home game with No. 2 Indiana.
"I think that will be good for us," Swopshire said. "We needed not just to win, but to win like this. I think this will boost our confidence."
Northwestern roared out of the gates, scoring on its first four possessions and establishing a 10-3 lead to quiet the Assembly Hall crowd. The Wildcats 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 Sobolewski's alert feed, a play that gave the Wildcats a 34-17 cushion with 3:09 remaining before halftime.
The first half's last sequence summed things up perfectly for the Illini. Rebounding D.J. Richardson's missed 3-pointer, Illinois held for the last shot, but Tracy Abrams clanged a wild runner in the lane and Sam McLaurin's put-back was blocked by the bottom of the rim as time expired.
That left the halftime score at 36-21, which was actually an improvement over the 39-19 deficit Illinois faced at intermission of Saturday's 74-51 defeat at Wisconsin.
"You can't keep digging big holes like we've done these last two games," Paul said. "We have to come out more focused."
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 Dec. 22 against Missouri in St. Louis. ... Northwestern entered the night ranked seventh nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.47. Its total of 186 turnovers in the first 17 games was the lowest in the Big Ten. However, the Wildcats had 10 assists and 15 turnovers Thursday. ... Paul was selected one of 25 semifinalists for the Wooden Award, which goes to college basketball's best player. Paul came into Thursday's game averaging 18.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.

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