All good things must come to an end, and on Saturday in Champaign, Illinois, Northwestern’s improbable four-game winning streak did just that, as the Wildcats (14-15, 5-11) limped out of the State Farm Center on the wrong end of a 86-60 blowout at the hands of the Illinois Fighting Illini (18-11, 8-8).
The State Farm Center was rocking even after the game was well out of hand, and Illinois fed off its raucous home crowd, running all over a seemingly lethargic Northwestern team from start to finish.
“They were playing on all cylinders tonight. I thought they really moved the ball well,” coach Chris Collins said. “They’re well coached, they have good players and they’re experienced. They play well at home, they get great energy. We knew that, but for some reason, we just weren’t able to match what they brought tonight.”
Reminiscent of several losses in its recent 10-game losing streak, a 10-and-a-half-minute NU field goal drought from the 16:28 to 5:58 marks in the first half doomed the ‘Cats early, as Illinois outscored them 18-5 over that period to put the game out of reach early.
Illinois went 9-of-15 from beyond the arc in the first half on its way to a 45-23 lead at intermission, consistently gashing Northwestern’s once-successful 2-3 zone with cross-court skip passes that gave its shooters countless open looks. The Illini finished at a 48.3 percent clip from long range (14-of-29), accounting for nearly half of their points. NU shot just 25 percent (5-of-20) from deep.
Rayvonte Rice, Illinois’ star senior guard who was injured the last time these teams met on Jan. 14, led the Illini three-point barrage, going 4-of-6 on three-pointers and leading all scorers with 19 points.
On the other side of the floor, the ‘Cats struggled to find lanes against a smothering Illini man defense, and compounded the problem by failing to corral many of their missed shots, losing the battle on the offensive glass 14-3. Illinois outrebounded NU 40-21 overall.
“They had us out on the floor more than we like when we have good spacing and flow to our offense,” Collins said. “I thought their physicality was key, it knocked us on our heels a little bit, and we weren’t really able to recover until the game was out of reach.”
At present, the 26-point loss appears to be an abrupt halt in their momentum, but the ‘Cats still have a chance to finish with their first winning regular season since 2011-12 if they can find a way to win their next two games.
The journey to 16-15 resumes at 8 p.m. Tuesday night, when the Michigan Wolverines will come to Evanston for NU’s Senior Night, the ‘Cats’ final game at Welsh-Ryan Arena this season.