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John Groce’s Illini produced a third consecutive clunker Thursday night, never seriously challenging Northwestern in a bewildering 68-54 result at the Assembly Hall. It was the UI’s fifth loss in seven games after a 12-0 start, and the third consecutive double-digit rout.
Concerns for a repeat of Illinois’ 2012 collapse were already developing, but no one could have anticipated how Northwestern would dominate a still-ranked UI squad that carried, at least to this point, strong NCAA tournament hopes.
“Northwestern was efficient offensively and got anything they wanted in the first 10 minutes,” Groce said.
“They were very precise in their execution, and we couldn’t take anything away. We weren’t locked in and they made us pay. Their early shooting was excellent.
“That’s two games in a row that we let our opponent dictate how the game was played. As at Wisconsin, we dug a hole and couldn’t get out. If we continue to defend this way, the result will not change.”
Go figure. Bill Carmody’s gang improved to 5-1 on the road, this by a team that fell to Maryland, UIC, Butler and Stanford at home and was hammered there by Big Ten rivals Michigan and Iowa.
Illinois, which led the nation in three-point shooting earlier, was an awful 3 for 20 from the arc and is 30 for 126 during a six-game span in which opponents made 48 of 101.
As happened in football, Thursday’s packed house grew surly as the outcome became apparent, and the fans cleared out early as Northwestern continued to out-execute, out-defend and outshoot the hosts. Five Wildcats attained double figures.
Except for senior Brandon Paul, who bagged 21 points, the UI offense barely functioned. Tracy Abrams reached double figures (10) with nine of them coming in the foul-marred closing minutes. Northwestern did not let the Illini back in, converting 26 of 31 free throws.
With nearly 17 minutes gone in the second half, Northwestern led 50-41 without a two-point basket in that span, the Wildcats maintaining their lead via three treys and stern defense.
The first half was shocking — resembling in some ways the Wisconsin misfire — and a disgruntled assemblage became less supportive as the fans derided the officials and grumbled about erratic Illini play. Groce, who also complained bitterly from the bench, drew a technical after halftime.
Fan unhappiness peaked late in the first half when Northwestern freshman Kale Abrahamson broke free to double the score 34-17. A more appreciative audience would have recognized a genuine Northwestern basketball clinic. The Wildcats cut the Illini to ribbons with senior Reggie Hearn sparking a deliberate team approach.
Spurred by four three-point bull’s-eyes at the outset, the visitors never trailed as the spreads mounted from 10-3 to 25-12, and to the halftime margin of 36-21.
At that juncture there didn’t seem to be anything the dazed Illini could do about it. In the half they managed just three assists while committing 10 turnovers. Each team attempted 24 fielders, the Wildcats sinking 13, Illinois eight. Each tried seven treys, Northwestern making five while the long UI slump continued with just one strike.
Historically, the Illini have dominated Northwestern. The advantage since 1980 is 56-8. But after the UI romped 70-37 in 2008, the contests have been highly competitive and the Wildcats have won four of the last six.
In 2009, the Illini won 60-59 on Demetri McCamey’s bank and later, in Champaign, 89-83 in overtime.
In 2010, Northwestern prevailed in the only game, 73-68, in Evanston.
In 2011, Illinois breezed at home 88-63 but lost 71-70 at Northwestern.
In 2012, the teams split, with the UI winning 57-56 on Myke Henry’s free throw at :06 and a late block by Meyers Leonard before Northwestern got even at home 74-70.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.