EVANSTON-As losses go, Northwestern's epic collapse against Illinois Thursday night was as painful as any in recent memory. The Wildcats let a 14-point lead slip away in the last five minutes, enabling the No. 22 Illini to escape with a stunning 60-59 victory.
WildcatReport was at the post-game press conference and brings you these post-mortem notes.
The full-court press Illinois used to mount its furious rally in the last five minutes was not something the Illini used before. Illinois coach Bruce Weber said it was drawn up by assistant coach Wayne McClain on the bench during the game. The Wildcats repeatedly picked up their dribbles and the Illini trapped the ballhandler with up to three men at times.
Northwestern had four turnovers in the first 35 minutes of the game but three in the final five minutes. Blame can't be pinned on freshman mistakes, either. All three TOs were committed by senior Craig Moore and sophomore point guard Michael Thompson simply couldn't find the Wildcats left unguarded by Illinois.
A clearly exasperated Northwestern coach Bill Carmody was asked at the post-game press conference what he will say to his team after the devastating loss. "I don't know" was his reply.
Weber opened his comments after the game by saying he felt sorry for Northwestern's players and coaches. "We probably didn't deserve to win," he said.
Kevin Coble lamented that the press "hadn't bothered us all year." He couldn't readily explain what happened to the normally sure-handed Wildcats down the stretch.
Northwestern did not get a shot to the rim in the last two minutes of the game. The Wildcats turned the ball over twice, Jeremy Nash and Thompson was stripped by Trent Meacham on NU's last possession.
Carmody told Luka Mirkovic that he was going to start just 20 minutes before the game and the freshman center responded with a career night. He scored 14 points (tied with Coble for the team-high) and pulled down a game- and career-high 12 rebounds for the Wildcats' first double-double of the season. He also had four assists.
Northwestern held its own on the boards with Illinois, getting outrebounded 35-31. Mirkovic credited the increased numbers to the 2-3 zone the Wildcats employed for most of the game. "It's much easier to rebound in the 2-3 than the 1-3-1," he said, adding that it was easier for him to find his man and box him out when a shot went up.
Carmody and Coble said the game reminded them of the last-minute collapse against Purdue last month. Weber said that the game reminded him of the Illini's wild rally to beat Arizona in the regional final of the 2005 NCAA Tournament. "I've been in it 30 years now, and this is one I'll definitely remember for a long time," Weber remarked.
Northwestern led for 39 minutes and 57.1 seconds. Demetri McCamey's game-winning shot with 2.9 seconds left was the Illini's only lead of the game.