Michael Thompson did everything in his power to make sure the Northwestern's dreams wouldn't die on Saturday. He played all 40 minutes, scored a game-high 22 points and was the heart and soul of the Wildcats' biggest win of the season.
It was in direct contrast to the game that the senior point guard on the other side, Illinois' Demetri McCamey had. McCamey took just six shots and had four assists and three turnovers. He played only 27 minutes while being partially saddled with foul trouble.
And so in the end it was Thompson's threes, 5-8 shooting from deep, that ruled the day and carried a still recovering Northwestern to a 71-70 victory over the #24 Fighting Illini.
Of course that ranking doesn't say much about Illinois. Bruce Weber's team is still full of question marks. The Illini have all the talent in the world, but they also have a number of perplexing losses away from the friendly confines of Assembly Hall in Champaign. Brandon Paul scored team-leading 21 points, but throughout the rest of the game Illinois waited for another player to step up and no one ever did.
Northwestern had two. While John Shurna looked a bit rusty in his first game back, even air balling a three late in the first half, JerShon Cobb and Drew Crawford picked up the slack. It was Crawford who scored 12 first half points, his entire total for the game, and kept the Wildcats in front early. It was Cobb, the freshman, who scored 13 points and showed he does have the ability to create his own shot, something the Wildcats have sorely missed in the past.
And so this team continues along. Yes, the schedule gets easier, but gone for a while are the chances for NCAA Tournament resume level wins. Still, two games against Penn State loom large, like spectres of the past. They are the gates to something more for the Wildcats. Split and Northwestern will probably find itself wondering, "What if?" Win both and some real questions will need to be asked heading into the Wisconsin-Minnesota final set.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Wednesday at Michigan won't be an easy game. The Wolverines will be looking for revenge, just like the Wildcats were today. And we know how that goes.