CHICAGO — Illinois could have folded when Andres Feliz's game-winning layup caromed untouched by Northwestern off the backboard — and only the backboard — at the end of regulation Wednesday night at the United Center.
The Wildcats nailing a three-pointer to start overtime and grabbing the momentum would have been another reason to throw in the towel.
The Illini might have done just that early in the season. Or during their 1-7 start to Big Ten play. Or while losing five of six games to end the regular season.
Except they didn’t Wednesday night in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.
They rallied, combining a series of defensive stops and big plays at the offensive end — from Trent Frazier, Ayo Dosunmu and even a little redemption for Feliz — for a 74-69 overtime victory.
Illinois (12-20) is in win-or-go-home mode in the tournament. There’s nothing left for the Illini this season after Chicago —unless they win the whole thing. Beating Northwestern (13-19) was the first step they had to take.
"There were a lot of things that didn't go particularly well throughout the course of the ball game, and yet we kept just hanging in," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said "To miss the layup at the end and then have them open the overtime with the three probably is the thing that makes me the happiest. It would have been very, very easy to just roll over and lay down, and we just kept hanging in there."
Illinois held strong in overtime without Giorgi Bezhanishvili. The 6-foot-9 freshman forward was borderline unstoppable Wednesday night, finishing with a game-high 26 points on 12 of 15 shooting. He hit hook shots. Up-and-unders. Even went coast-to-coast for a layup after a steal late in the second half.
Then he fouled out. Bezhanishvili spent the final 17 seconds of regulation and all of overtime on the bench. Watching.
"I couldn't really put it in words," Bezhanishvili said about his experience as an overtime spectator. "I was so excited. At the same time I was so confident with any guys because I knew they would leave it all out there.
"We've been through a really tough year, and I know these guys are tough, and I know they would give everything out there on the floor. I was just so confident in them. I really felt like we were going to win the game, and we did. It was just a great feeling."
Frazier was confident the Illini could put their struggles this season behind them in the Big Ten tournament. That type of confidence hasn’t wavered this season.
"These guys, throughout the season, we’ve been fighting a lot," said Frazier, who added 21 points to Bezhanishvili’s 26. "We’ve been through a lot of adversity. These guys are unbelievable. We come to practice every day ready to compete and get after it— get after each other —and we've been successful throughout parts of the season. We're hoping, you know, to continue to move (on in the tournament)."
Feliz scored four of his 11 points and hauled in three of his team-high 10 rebounds in overtime. His runner in the lane was one of four shots the Illini made in the extra five minutes —on four attempts. Underwood was even more enthused about his team’s defense.
"It’s been our defense when we’ve gotten good wins," he said. "When we’ve had to grind for it, it’s been our defense that’s done it. Yeah, we played good offense. We went 4 for 4 in the overtime, but our defense was what I was really proud of. That’s when the grit and fight you need came through in a while."
The offense was still pretty good, though. Even without Bezhanishvili on the court, who had been the Illini’s most consistent scorer throughout the entire game. His absence, though, simply created a new wrinkle for Illinois to exploit —particularly as Northwestern played without leading scorer (and top wing defender) Vic Law, who missed the game with an injury.
"I thought it really showed up in the overtime because they really spread the floor," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "Everybody was a little tired. I had one less defender out there than I needed, and that's not knocking the guys that we had on the floor.
"But normally if I have (A.J.) Turner, (Anthony) Gaines and Law, those three guys can match up with Frazier, Ayo and Feliz. … I thought we missed (Law) defensively, and the ability to keep the ball in front, especially late in the game in overtime when the guards kind of took over."
Illinois hit on the March imperative Wednesday night. The Illini survived — in every sense of the word — and now they advance. Iowa (21-10) waits in an 8:30 p.m. second-round matchup tonight.
"It's the next round," Underwood said. "We've got to move on. … I didn't think we played great (Wednesday). I thought we played actually better in a game or two when we got beat.
"But, yeah, it's important to win. There is no doubt about that. These guys need to feel what this is all about. You only need a little ripple to create a tidal wave, so we'll see."