With Wisconsin dropping a game at home against Rutgers and Purdue falling to Michigan on the road Saturday, Illinois’ Sunday matinee against Northwestern left the Illini in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten title race and a chance to build on that lead — easier said than done.
The Illini raced out to a quick 12-4 lead thanks in large part to Alfonso Plummer. Illinois’ sharpshooter started with eight points in the first four minutes and closed the first half with a game-high 16 on 6-of-10 shooting from the field, including four treys. Illinois also got a productive spark from RJ Melendez who poured in a couple threes and a steal off the bench.
It was one of the best offensive halves for the Illini all season, featuring great ball movement and getting everyone involved. Illinois had nearly as many first-half three-point makes (nine) as Northwestern had total made field goals (11), nursing a 14-point lead at the break.
But that efficiency didn’t last long. The Illini committed 14 turnovers in the second half and looked all sorts of out of sync.
Credit to Northwestern, the Wildcats threw different looks — including heavy doses of double teams — at Kofi Cockburn & Co, cutting a one-time 17-point Illinois lead to just one late in the second. Clearly, teams have a blueprint to stump the Illini; pressure Cockburn into poor decisions.
Melendez’s big game continued into crunch time, hitting two critical free throws with 90 seconds left to put Illinois in a what should’ve been a comfortable seven-point lead (more on that in a sentence) and cap his career-high 12-point day. Expect to see more and more of the freshman as he continues to gain Brad Underwood’s trust and contribute across the box score.
After Plummer missed consecutive free throws that would’ve pushed Illinois’ lead to three possessions, Northwestern responded with a layup to put the Wildcats down three points with 24 seconds left to play. Jacob Grandison and Melendez each knocked down a pair of free throws in the closing seconds to put a bow on this one, 73-66.
- Alfonso Plummer (ILL): 19 PTS, 5-11 3FG
- Kofi Cockburn (ILL): 19 PTS, 15 REB
- RJ Melendez (ILL): 14 PTS, 6 REB
- Ty Berry (NU): 16 PTS
- Chase Audige (NU): 12 PTS, 7 REB
Illinois career double-doubles— Illini Stats & Notes (@IlliniStats) February 13, 2022
41 Kofi Cockburn, 20-22
41 Skip Thoren, 1963-65
40 Nick Weatherspoon, 1971-73
YOU GOTTA SEE THIS
More RJ Melendez please.
TWEET OF THE GAME
I always took Coleman for a Zyn kind of guy.
Not the best place to hide your Skoal, Coleman pic.twitter.com/E0y6hPtGRf— Curbelo Your Enthusiasm (@WhityRemarks) February 13, 2022
The Illini hit the road for a tough contest against Rutgers at the RAC on Wednesday. The Scarlet Knights have knocked off three straight ranked opponents, including Michigan State and Ohio State at home.
Tipoff is set for 6 p.m. CT.