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No. 9 Illinois crushes Northwestern to restart Big Ten play

The Illini open up 2024 with a dominant victory.

TCR // Jack Jungmann

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — New year, same story.

In Illinois’ second game without Terrence Shannon Jr., the veterans stepped up in his absence again as the ninth-ranked Illini came out with a dominant 96-66 win over Northwestern at State Farm Center on Tuesday night to open the 2024 calendar.

Despite a very different opponent in Northwestern, this game followed the same formula as Illinois’ dominant win over FDU to close 2023: Everyone contributes.

The orange and blue spread out the rock against the Knights this past Friday, as six players finished in double digits for scoring. The performance Tuesday followed suit.

Four Illinois players put up double digit points, led by Marcus Domask who finished with a game-high 32 points and 6 assists.

“We trust in each other, we believe in the coaches,” Domask said. “We’re confident in each other.”

The Illini started out hot. It was all Illinois in the first 20 minutes.

Illinois (11-2, 2-0 Big Ten) shot 18-of-30 from the field in the first half as they headed to the locker room up 46-29. But it was the Illinois defense that was the story early on.

The stingy defense from the Illini held the Wildcats to just 10-of-32 from the floor and 3-of-10 from behind the arc in the first. Northwestern (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten) also only took six free throws before the half.

Domask led all scorers at the break with 15 points, while Quincy Guerrier had 9 of his own.

“Obviously, Marcus was huge,” said head coach Brad Underwood. “I thought Quincy had some very well-timed cuts against what their rotations were.”

Coleman Hawkins absolutely dominated on the defensive side of the ball, ending the half with 2 blocks and a steal.

“He is instinctive, he’s smart, he’s coming over in timeouts, he’s talking to me constantly,” Underwood said. “He just understands everything about that side of the floor.”

The domination continued after the break, as Illinois opened the second on an 8-2 run. Domask completely controlled the pace, knocking down two jumpers in the first 5 minutes of the second half.

Northwestern’s star guard Boo Buie was the only bright spot for the Wildcats, scoring 20 of their total 66 points. Despite being their leading scorer, Buie only shot 6-of-14 and picked up a technical foul in the second half for slamming the ball on the ground in frustration.

“We just put a lot of different people on him,” Domask said. “We have an athletic, longer team where when you throw different guys to be more physical with them a little bit longer, that can wear on players.”

For the second straight game, Justin Harmon finished with double-digit points, scoring a season-high 20 on the night.

“I’m just calming down a lot and trusting my teammates,” Harmon said. “They’re going to get me the ball in the right spot.”

In the last two games, Harmon has had his two highest scoring games at Illinois, with 18 and 20 points respectively. In Shannon’s absence, Harmon has taken advantage of his increased time on the court.

“Great game for Justin again,” Underwood said. “He’s being rewarded for his hard work and that’s tremendous to see.”

For those concerned about how Illinois would look without its leading scorer: So far, so good.

“They’re very connected, as I’ve said,” Underwood said. “They have tremendous desire and passion, and they all believe in their abilities.”

In wake of everything that this team has dealt with in the past week, this squad is faring better than anyone thought they would’ve after losing its star player. Tuesday was a complete team win and a testament to the culture Underwood has built within this program.

“I can’t explain it but they all, not on the court, off of it, care about each other,” Underwood said. “It’s at another level.”

YOU GOTTA SEE THIS

Hawkins with a HUGE block leading to a transition bucket.

Guerrier with an EMPHATIC dunk.

Hawkins with a MONSTER JAM.

Guerrier getting it done from behind the arc too.

SOUND SMART

  • The Illini dominated the glass, winning the rebounding battle 35 to 24.
  • The orange and blue kept it clean on the stat sheet, as every play on the floor had a positive +/-. Guerrier led the way, finishing +28 on the night.
  • Illinois was extremely selfless on the night, finishing with 17 assists compared to just 8 for the Wildcats. “The right reads and unselfish play,” Underwood said. “It’s turning down a good one to get a great one.”
  • The Illini offense was lights out in the second half, shooting 7-of-10 from behind the arc and 17-of-26 from the field overall.

TWEET OF THE GAME

Everything was rolling Tuesday for the Illini. This team is fun to watch.

UP NEXT

Illinois will head to West Lafayette to take on No. 1 Purdue this Friday.

Tipoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on FS1.