EVANSTON – The rooting section from Elgin at Sunday's women's basketball game between Illinois and Northwestern probably outnumbered the potholes on the Dan Ryan Expressway, believe it or not.
And the maroon-clad folks who swamped the north seats at Welsh-Ryan Arena had plenty to cheer when former Elgin Maroon Melissa Parker burned the Wildcats for a game-high 19 points in the Illini's 74-55 romp.
Parker said afterward it was no big deal, really. But playing against former Elgin teammate Leslie Schock, now a Wildcat forward, and winning in Evanston sure seemed to be loads of fun.
"She always seems to have good games against us," Northwestern guard Megan Chawansky said.
Several times Parker pumped her fist after a basket or let out a brief yell of celebration. A little more pumped up today?
"It's exciting to have the fans come out, but once you get on the court it really doesn't matter," Parker said. "Whenever our team needs something more, I'll add a little more excitement to the game."
Against Northwestern, that meant a second-half flurry that buried the Wildcats (7-6, 1-2 Big Ten). Mixed with steady, game-long work from Alicia Sheeler, Parker's production helped the Illini (10-6, 4-2) cruise into a seven-day break in striking distance of the conference leaders.
Most important, the Illini got a much-needed Big Ten road win, having dumped close decisions at Iowa and No. 23 Ohio State. (And two to end the 1997-98 regular season.)
"It's really hard to go on the road and come that close and lose," said Sheeler, who collected 18 points and 11 rebounds. "We wanted to come out today and make a statement, play together and do some of the things we've been working on."
That included their trademark matchup zone, which limited Northwestern to 34.5 percent shooting and just 25 first-half points. Chawansky and backcourt mate Dana Leonard, who combine for nearly 32 points a game, shot 7 of 28 and scored 21 points. Chawansky led with 15 but also made eight turnovers while doggedly trying to pierce Illinois' zone.
"Eight turnovers is not acceptable, especially for a senior guard," Chawansky said. "I pretty much got my shots. Their defense wasn't all that tough. They were leaving me open, leaving most of us open. I was just putting it on the floor a little too much."
The Wildcats tried to siphon off Illinois' inside game of Sheeler and Susan Blauser (14 points). Given some room, Parker made the difference in the second half.
With the UI in front 43-40, Parker scored 11 points in a 17-3 spurt that ended the suspense with five minutes to play.
"They had pretty much packed it in," UI coach Theresa Grentz said. "We needed to be able to knock some shots down. I told Melissa to keep shooting. You never tell a shooter to stop. Just shoot it, and don't worry about it."
Sunday's game was the second time Parker got to play near her hometown. The Illini won in Evanston during the guard's freshman season (she scored seven points in 30 minutes) but weren't scheduled to play last winter at Welsh-Ryan. When the teams met in Champaign, Parker scored 15 points in a UI victory.
"The other day (against Michigan), Parker shot 3 for 13 from the three-point line," Northwestern coach Don Perrelli said. "When she plays us, she sticks the ball in the basket. If you're going to take away Sheeler and Blauser, then you're going to leave something (open), and Parker filled it in."
Tami Sears had 13 points and 14 rebounds for the Wildcats.