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February 18, 2013

NU just plain awful against Illinois

EVANSTON-With 1:14 to play in the second half of Illinois' 62-41 beatdown of Northwestern on Sunday, the chants began to float down from the upper deck.

"Our state, our team," bellowed the sea of orange-clad Illinois students who made the trip from Champaign to Evanston.

On this night, anyway, they were right. Just a few days after Illinois announced a new campaign to try to capitalize on its proximity to Chicago, the Fighting Illini sent an emphatic statement to the school that claims to be "Chicago's Big Ten Team."

Just three days after a resilient performance against No. 13 Ohio State, the Wildcats were blown out of Welsh-Ryan in resounding fashion by a team that they had thumped by 14 in Champaign exactly one month earlier.

Yet it wasn't as if the Illini played a perfect game. Despite shooting 52 percent from the field in the second half, Illinois was just 8-for-15 from the free throw line and shot 30 percent (6-for-20) from beyond the arc. The Illini turned the ball over nine times and enjoyed just a plus-6 rebounding margin against Northwestern.

But while Illinois was hardly spectacular, Northwestern was nothing short of awful.

In a season marked by streaky shooting, the Wildcats wouldn't have hit Lake Michigan from Navy Pier against the Illini. When the Cats beat Illinois in Champaign, they shot 53.3 percent from 3-point range. On Sunday, Northwestern hit just 5-of-27 shots from beyond the perimeter.

The supposed leaders of this Northwestern team disappeared for long periods of time on Sunday, including a span of more than nine minutes when Illinois went on a 26-0 run to increase its lead from four to 30.

The man who finally broke the streak? It sure wasn't sophomore Dave Sobolewski, who shot 0-for-6 from the field and 0-for-5 from three. Nor was it Reggie Hearn or Tre Demps, who went a combined 6-for-22 from the floor.

Instead, it was junior James Montgomery III, who showed the most energy and hustle of any Northwestern player. But even he didn't shoot particularly well, finishing just 1-for-3, for two points.

It was so bad that two of Northwestern's starters -- Sobolewski and Mike Turner -- did not score, and four of the five were held scoreless until Kale Abrahamson hit a 3-pointer with 6:32 left in the game.

Head coach Bill Carmody was not impressed with Sobolewski's performance, saying the rough start may have affected the rest of Sobolewski's performance on Sunday night.

"He has some real good games, and he has some other games," Carmody said.

When the clock mercifully expired, Northwestern's final shooting numbers were just 25 percent from the floor and 18.5 percent from three. The Cats achieved the dubious distinction of finishing the game with more turnovers (14) than field goals (12).

"Our offense was bad the entire night," Carmody said. "[It] didn't seem to have any flow to it."

It's not as if there is any easy answer. The looks Northwestern got on Sunday were fine, Carmody said, but he struggled to explain why the team suffers such dramatic shifts in shooting percentage.

"I really don't have an answer to that" Carmody said. "If I did, I'd do something about it."

Hearn, who finished with a team-high 11 points that was still short of his 14 points-per-game average, was heavily critical of his team's performance.

"We didn't make shots, we didn't defend, we didn't do a lot of things we normally do," Hearn said.

But most importantly, Northwestern did not defend its home court. After going 27-9 at Welsh-Ryan Arena over the last two seasons, the Cats are now just 8-8 on their home floor this season.

After the game, as Illinois coach John Groce raved about his team's effort and defensive intensity, many of those fans who made the trip to Evanston gathered near the Illinois bench.

It was the Illini's state on Sunday night. And it was their court, too.



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