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Illinois snaps three-game skid against Northwestern, 81-76

A win over Northwestern always feels good.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thank you, Andres Feliz.

Illinois fought off a second-half comeback from Northwestern to top the Wildcats, 81-76, on Sunday night at the State Farm Center, snapping a three-game losing streak.

The Illini (11-18, 7-11) got a monstrous performance from their JUCO transfer, and they needed every last bit of it. Feliz finished his night with 26 points (5-of-9 from the field, 16-of-17 from the free throw line), five rebounds, three assists and three steals. Feliz gave Illinois solid minutes down the stretch in the first half and that momentum carried over to the second period.

“I thought Andres Feliz was a guy that was terrific,” said Illinois Head Coach Brad Underwood. “Andres does an unbelievable job of echoing me [on the floor.] He’s getting to a point where he’s confident and comfortable. He understands the game, and he’s got a poise about him that I really like... He drew 11 fouls on their team by himself.”

He’s been Illinois’ motor the past couple games and Sunday night was no different. On multiple possessions, he cruised past a back-peddling Northwestern defense for easy lay-ups or drew fouls at the rim. Or, he was turning the Wildcats over in the backcourt and finding open looks for himself or his teammates. His play was a large part of why Illinois was able to take care of business at home, and he deserves much of the credit.

“It feels great being here,” Feliz said. “We’ve been fighting all year. We don’t give up. We stay working hard.”

If you want to prove that your team has turned a corner, you have to win the games you’re supposed to. The Illini entered the evening as 5.5-point favorites over Northwestern (12-17, 3-15), a team on a nine-game losing streak and in sole possession of last place in the Big Ten. In other words, this is one of those must-win games.

“That was a good college basketball game,” Underwood said. “We jumped on them early. They fought back and made it interesting on us.”

The defensive pressure and intensity sparked a hot start from Illinois and kept the Wildcats from establishing any sort of rhythm on offense. But, the Wildcats put up a much different fight in the second, trimming the lead to as close as three in the final 30 seconds.

Illinois raced out to an early 16-4 lead over the Wildcats in the first half, thanks in large part to a hot start from behind the arc. The Illini sank four of their first five attempts from three and finished the half shooting over 50 percent from deep.

Northwestern struggled from the field, finishing the first half 10-of-33 from the floor and 1-of-13 from three-point range. The team’s leading scorer Vic Law didn’t have any success offensively either, tallying just two points, two rebounds, three turnovers, and two fouls through the first 20 minutes.

“[The 1-2-2 press] is tough to defend because we’re long,” said freshman Ayo Dosunmu. “We play off instinct. Then, when they get into the halfcourt, there’s 16 [seconds] left on the shot clock, and that disrupts their offense.”

The Wildcats began to close the gap in the opening minutes of the second half. They found some success behind the arc, going 6-of-13 from three, and also forcing the Illini into some silly mistakes offensively. Illinois struggled to keep Northwestern at bay, even closing the game on a six-minute field goal drought. But, it wasn’t enough for Northwestern to steal this one on the road, coming up short, 81-76.

“I come to practice everyday loving to coach this team,” Underwood said. “I’ll be as energetic at practice on Tuesday as I was day one... When guys improve, that’s all you can ask for as a coach. I go to bed every night with a smile on my face eager for the next day.”

TWEET OF THE GAME

MOMENTS THAT MATTER

  • Northwestern opened up the second half on a 7-1 run, closing the game to within six points, and putting the Wildcats in position to make a comeback.

WHO’S NEXT

The Illini will look to avenge another conference loss this season on Senior Night this Thursday against the Indiana Hoosiers. Our neighbors to the east have been nothing but inconsistent in conference play this season. They own both seven and five-game losing streaks in league play, but have also knocked off top-10 team Michigan State twice and a ranked Wisconsin squad.

Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. CT.

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