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Illinois bounces back, sweeps Northwestern

A win despite the whistle-happy officials.

TCR // David Pollak

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Off the heels of a disappointing overtime loss on the road to a regional rival, the Fighting Illini defended home court in dominant fashion against another nearby nemesis.

Illinois cruised by Northwestern comfortably, never trailing and only finding themselves tied with the visitors in the seconds following the tipoff. It wasn’t quite as close as the 82-71 scoreline would suggest thanks to a surge in the fourth quarter from the Wildcats, but the Orange and Blue would pull through.

While the Northwestern Wildcats (8-15, 3-9 Big Ten) aren’t exactly a powerhouse, sitting at 210 in the NET rankings, bouncing back with a win was meaningful for Illinois (11-11, 5-7 Big Ten), who sit at 51st despite being .500 on the season.

After showing just seven on the court in the loss at Purdue, Shauna Green played 10 vs. the Wildcats. Five points from the bench against the Boilermakers was easily outdone with 17 on Thursday, thanks to eight from Shay Bollin, but it was Illinois’ hottest hands that got the ball in the basket.

“The people who had a really good game today off the bench, it was a direct correlation from how they were this week [in practice] and how vocal and focused they were,” Makira Cook said after the game. “It’s just nice to see everything come together and we celebrate them.”

Adalia McKenzie owned the basket in the first half, with 14 of her 20 coming in the first two quarters. Cook took over those duties in the second half, where she scored 15 of her 19 on the night.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had three games back to back to back like that,” McKenzie said after the game. When asked where the stretch of three games ranks in her Illinois career, she said: “It’s number one in my book.”

In the past three games, she’s averaged 13.7 points and 10 rebounds shooting 53.7% from the field.

While slow starts on the offensive side of the ball have been characteristic of Illinois teams this season, it was the Wildcats who couldn’t get their foot on the gas early. They shot 10-for-31 in the half, managing just 26 points and finding themselves down 15 going into the break.

There were antsy moments, however. The Wildcats would cut the Illinois lead down to just six in the third quarter. It got close at times, but getting to the free-throw line would separate the hosts from the visitors. 16 of Illinois’ 41 second-half points came from the charity stripe.

“It was huge,” Shauna Green said on the role of her team’s free-throw shooting in the second half.

Free throws for Illinois don’t just mean it was an Orange and Blue whistle tonight. There were 41 fouls called in the game, 21 on the Wildcats and 20 on the Fighting Illini.

“You never know what you’re gonna get, right? Of how they’re gonna call the game,” Green said after the game. “When that’s the case, like always, we want to attack and we talk all the time about getting paint touches.”

“We were actually getting calls tonight. That hasn’t happened in a while, so it was great. And it lead to obviously the 27 [free throws],” Green said. The whistle-happy nature of the referees affected her team’s instruction. “Every game is officiated a little bit differently and that’s just basketball, so, ‘if they’re calling it tight, be aggressive and get downhill’ and our players did that.”

TOURNEY TIME?

Northwestern is a quad-4 win for the Illini, meaning it won’t improve their postseason resume by too much but will prevent them from falling too much in the NET rankings after the loss to Purdue, who is 77th.

“Every game, I truly believe this team can beat anyone we play or could lose to anyone we play,” Green said after the game.

Their next game against Maryland will be between two teams that are 5-7 in conference play. The winner will take sole possession of the 8th seed in the conference, which will have implications on the Big Ten Tournament and possibly the NCAA Tournament.

“This is a big game. It’s a big game Sunday,” Green said.

STAT STUFFERS

  • Adalia McKenzie (ILL): 20 points, 8-of-11 FG
  • Makira Cook (ILL): 19 points, 9-of-11 FT
  • Kendall Bostic (ILL): 8 points, 13 rebounds

TWEET OF THE GAME

Northwestern’s Caileigh Walsh had two missed free throws late in the second quarter. You know what that means...

UP NEXT

Illinois will stay at home to take on Maryland on Sunday. The first meeting this season between the two teams saw the Illini lose 90-82. Tip-off against the Terrapins will be at 2 p.m., and the game will be on Fox Sports 1.