Illinois guard Andre Curbelo, right, and assistant coach Chin Coleman cheer during Thursday night’s 81-56 comeback victory by the 12th-ranked Illini at Northwestern. Curbelo scored six points as Illinois won its fourth consecutive game, a streak the Illini will look to build on Sunday when they host Maryland.

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EVANSTON — Brad Underwood had never seen anything quite like it.

Chris Collins wasn’t sure where it all went wrong.

The second half of Thursday night’s Illinois-Northwestern game was a doozy. Part the 12th-ranked Illini converting a 15-point halftime deficit into an 81-56 win. Part how they made it happen, limiting the Wildcats to just 13 points on 2-of-24 shooting.

Save the time doing the math. That’s just 8.3 percent.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Underwood said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like that game. I will say this. To come out in the second half and hold a team to 8 percent and two field goals, I’ve not been a part of that. You just don’t do that to a Chris Collins team offensively because they’re as good offensively as any team in the country being able to score the ball at five spots.”

For one night, though, Illinois did do that to a Chris Collins team. Northwestern went from shooting 51.6 percent from the field in the first half to bottoming out offensively in the second. Nine second-half turnovers and some offensive impatience didn’t help.

“I thought we had some really sloppy turnovers we didn’t have in the first half,” Collins said. “We had four turnovers in the first half, and we were really moving the ball and finding the open guys. We were either turning the ball over or attacking in transition when they had the numbers. I thought we were a little impatient.

“Are you executing and missing shots? Or are you not running good offense? In the second half, much of it was not good offense. The second half it just really got away from us. When we lost the lead, they just smelled the blood in the water and really attacked like a great team does.”

★ ★ ★

Illinois didn’t let up as its advantage grew in the second half, either. Boasting a 20-point lead, the Illini doubled down defensively. A little floor slapping to perhaps send a message.

“That’s all Ayo Dosunmu,” Illinois sophomore center Kofi Cockburn said. “He got in his mode — his competitive mode — and told everybody running back on defense to slap the floor. That was all Ayo.”

Underwood was pleased.

“There’s no quit in us,” the Illini coach said. “It was good (Thursday). Now we’ve got to go do it again on Sunday. When this team plays hard and this team plays connected and with great energy, we can be that type of team at both ends of the court.”

★ ★ ★

Northwestern didn’t make a field goal in the final 7 minutes, 32 seconds of Thursday’s game. The Illini’s 6-0 run in the final minute-plus was but just a small segment of dominant second half where they outscored the Wildcats by 40 points.

“They came out in the second half and wanted it more,” Northwestern forward Robbie Beran said. “They went on a little run, and from there things can go one of two ways: You can band together, or you can splinter.”

It was splinter Thursday for the Wildcats. An empty Welsh-Ryan Arena didn’t help in trying to slow down Illinois either.

“With the lack of any kind of crowd I think you see momentum shifts even more drastic this year,” Collins said. “I felt like we had a lot of momentum in the first half. We had the energy. We had the life. Then they hit us with that 8-0 spurt in a minute-and-a-half there to start the second half, and you kind of felt the energy shift. It gave them life. Then you really heard their bench, and you heard their energy.”

Illinois has made a point this season — at least since its Dec. 2 game against Baylor in Indianapolis — to bring energy from the bench. Thursday was a success in that regard.

“That’s huge,” Underwood said. “The most annoying thing is piped in crowd noise, which is bleh. That’s it. Everybody on this team has a job to do. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting in games or not or if you’re a manager or whatever. We need everybody to be a star in their role.”

★ ★ ★

Underwood said he didn’t want to “make too much” out of his team’s dominant second half.

Illinois shot 59.4 percent from the field overall and 57.1 percent from three-point range after halftime. Trent Frazier, Da’Monte Williams and Adam Miller knocked down a pair of three-pointers apiece.

“We were really good,” Underwood said. “We were really dialed in. It just kind of got out of hand. I don’t want to make too much out of that. Chris is a heck of a coach, and they’ve got a heck of a team. It just became one of those 20 minutes you just want to kind of forget about. I can’t say how proud I am at the response of our guys, though.”

★ ★ ★

Underwood was proud of the way his team handled its 15-point halftime deficit, too. He got his displeasure in during the final two timeouts of the first half. Halftime was more on the players.

“I wasn’t in (the locker room) for a while,” Underwood said. “They were all getting after each other pretty good and were all chiming in. I don’t want to say embarrassed. They were disappointed. They knew that wasn’t them.

“That’s nice. That’s the leadership you want as a coach that you don’t have to go do that. At one point in my career in this program, I had to provide all that. It was emotional and it was getting on them. Now they handle it. It keeps my blood pressure down.”


Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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