EVANSTON — When a layup dropped through the basket to make it a 45-15 game, the fans at Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena delivered a standing ovation.
This is where it gets weird.
Northwestern coach Bill Carmody called a timeout to stop the bleeding during Illinois’ 26-0 run. Half the fans in the building — including 150 members of the Orange Krush who made the trip in three busses — wore orange and cheered boisterously as the state’s team routed Chicago’s Big Ten team 62-41 on Sunday.
“It’s great. This support is amazing, and we’re so glad to have a student section like the Orange Krush,” said Brandon Paul (eight points, five assists, six rebounds).
“I thought we had more orange in here than purple,” point guard Tracy Abrams said.
Hundreds of Illinois fans gathered around the tunnel leading to the Illinois locker room after the game to offer their congratulations and pose for photos with a team that’s won four straight and trending in the right direction.
They only began to disperse when the Welsh-Ryan crew turned off the lights in that section of the building.
And as their fan base was owning the opposition’s arena, the Illini (19-8, 6-7 Big Ten) once again took a step in assuming ownership of a season that hung in the balance 10 days ago when they were 2-7 in conference play.
John Groce’s club avoided an NCAA tournament resume blemish while continuing its recent stretch of torrid play, holding the Wildcats to a season-low point total a month after the ’Cats left Champaign with a 68-54 win against the Illini.
“I’m really proud of our guys for the way they defended, I think we’re getting better defensively,” coach John Groce said.
“I think we’re getting better offensively, but when we play well it starts with our defense. I thought we were really locked in.”
D.J. Richardson led the way with 18 points for the Illini. Abrams (four assists) came off the bench to score 13 against Northwestern (13-13, 4-9), which has battled injuries of late and dressed eight scholarship players.
“(Abrams) was very aggressive. I thought he played a terrific game,” Carmody said.
The talk two weeks ago was whether Illinois would be able to secure a bid into the NCAA tournament. Right now at least, the conversation is about seeding.
Yahoo! Sports bracketologist Brad Evans said Sunday that Illinois will be a No. 6 seed when his most up-to-date bracket is released today.
“I think we can get better, for sure,” Groce said. “A lot of it’s just mind-set and guys continuing to get more comfortable with the system at both ends of the floor. ... We’re getting better, but we still have a long way to go.”
You won’t hear anyone inside the Illinois locker room looking any further than Thursday’s game against Penn State, which is winless in Big Ten play.
“We’re just going to take it one game at a time,” Abrams said. “We’ve just got to stay level, stay at the same pace all the time.”