Northwestern lost to Illinois, 89-83 in overtime, tonight at Assembly Hall in Champaign, IL.
This wasn't a game I expected the Wildcats to win in the Big Ten. While the Illini are a young team, they are a talented one as well. Coming into the game Ken Pomeroy had the Wildcats ranked 53rd and the Illini 55th. In a game between two so evenly matched teams home court is often the deciding factor.
As I listened on the radio tonight, it certainly seemed like that playing at home was the difference. Illinois, a team that hadn't taken many free throws up to this point, went to the free throw line 27 times, almost twice as many as Northwestern's 15. The Illini doubled the output of the Wildcats from the free throw line 22-11, much more than the difference in the game.
The other difference in the game was Mike Tisdale (left, above). He dominated in the paint against Luka Mirkovic and Kyle Rowley before fouling out in overtime.
The Illini went inside early and often. Junior center Tisdale, who hadn't scored more than 18 points in a game all season, exploded for 31 points and 11 rebounds. This strikes me as a good idea, seeing as a 7'1" center that isn't a stiff is tough to find in the college game. Tisdale is one of the most efficient offensive players in college basketball and he proved it tonight with his 31 points in 17 possessions.
Both freshman played well for the Wildcats as Drew Crawford had 13 points (on 13 shots...) and 8 rebounds and Alex Marcotullio added 13 points (on 4-9 shooting from three) and his usual stat stuffers. It was nice to listen to them both playing confidently in a big conference game.
Since I didn't expect a victory I'm not particularly disappointed. The nine-point halftime lead got my hopes up a bit, but in the second half it was clear - even from the audio - that this was Illinois' game to lose. The fact that Northwestern had a chance to win at the buzzer and managed to force overtime says something about how tough an out the Wildcats will be this season in the Big Ten.
Of course, no matter what you expect, being a tough out isn't enough to break the barrier and get to the NCAA Tournament. Expectations get Northwestern to 9-9 in conference, but is that enough? The Wildcats need the numbers in the left-hand column to rise, not moral victories. Another chance comes on Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena against Michigan State. The Wildcats once again will be the underdog. While I'm not expecting them to win, I sure hope they do.