The shots weren't falling. Every time Trent Frazier touched the ball, the fans were in his face, mocking his airball from the first half. Alfonso Plummer and Frazier were a paltry 4-of-11 from the three-point line. Brad Underwood had to go 11 deep into his roster to find a way to get a win.
There was not a player Saturday at Northwestern who didn’t find a way to contribute in some fashion to get roadkill No. 4 on the season. In my last column, I was unimpressed by the breakdown in Illinois’ fighting spirit in the second half against Michigan State.
But, in Welsh-Ryan Arena, even with a win probability of 36% with 3 minutes to go, that spirit didn't seem to die. I could feel the energy 2,066 miles away in Seattle.
RJ Melendez and Brandon Podziemski showed the culture that Underwood has been building in Champaign. Melendez played important minutes down the stretch and tied his season-high at 6 points, including an assertive slam midway through the first half.
”RJ Meléndez with the power dunk”— PURBASKET (@purbasket1) January 29, 2022
Illinois 59 56 Northwestern
Alfonso Plummer: 9pts-3reb-19min @AlfonsoPlummer9
RJ Meléndez: 6pts-3reb-1ast-16min @MelendezRamses
Trent Frazier: 6pts-2ast-1reb-1stl-40min @trentfrazier
@IlliniMBB #NCAAPurbasket pic.twitter.com/ujyoJuIQaX
Podziemski only played 6 minutes but was responsible for 7 points in that stretch. Freshman Luke Goode was held on the bench with foul trouble, but this game showed how prepared these freshmen are in high-stress situations. Illinois will be in good hands as the Class of 2021 matures.
Kofi Cockburn dominated in yet another Big Ten matchup. The Wildcats kept double, triple, and even at times quintuple teaming Cockburn in the paint, but were unable to stop Kofi from going 10-for-17 for 22 points on the night. This was his ninth 20-point game in 15 games and Kofi was the only Illini in double figures Saturday afternoon.
Illinois came out flat in the second half. I don’t think there has been a single game where the Illini haven't had a 5-minute scoring drought. When Wisconsin comes to town next week, Illinois can’t let up. Badger guard Johnny Davis has put up double-digit field goals in 16 of Wisconsin’s 17 games this season. A 5-minute scoreless stretch by the Illini when Davis and Brad Davison come to Champaign would be brutal.
Against the second-worst team in the Big Ten, Illinois required late-game antics from Da’Monte Williams and Frazier. The super seniors are the heart of the team and played with poise for the last 5 minutes, and you could tell by their actions that Illinois was going to win the game. But, against a far inferior team, Illinois has to do better.
This was finally a feel-good win by the Illini. Down on the road to a raucous crowd, Illinois found a way to pull out a win. A win in Wednesday’s matchup against the Badgers will cement the Illini at the top of the Big 10. After a disappointing 3 game stretch, the injury ridden Illini look to be coming out of the slump. This game had a similar feel as the Maryland loss just over a week ago. But this time, the Illini proved to the fans and more importantly to themselves that they can win on the road.
As down as I was after a top 10 win at home, the grittiness the Illini exhibited on the hardwood Saturday afternoon, proved to me that this is a team that can flow with the punches and truly define a culture win.