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Columnist
Northwestern takes game it really needed
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 1/24/2010 12:03 AM

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A Web site known as the Bracket Project canvasses the country for legit NCAA Tournament projections.

As Northwestern and Illinois took the court Saturday night, the Bracket Project had 44 projections on its site.

That's a large enough sample to believe the brackets when they suggest the Wildcats entered the game as the 69th entry in a 65-team field and the Illini stood 70th.

In other words, both teams need to do serious work to get into the NCAA Tournament.

And since it's particularly ruinous to lose home games against an equal team, Northwestern had to have its come-from-behind 73-68 victory before a berserk sellout crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

"Absolutely it was a must-win," said Wildcats sophomore center Luka Mirkovic, who played Illinois' Mike Tisdale to a standoff less than a month after Tisdale torched him for many of his career-high 31 points. "I'm not going to lie. I mean, everybody knew that."

Northwestern (14-5, 3-4 Big Ten) had little business breaking its 11-game losing streak to Illinois (12-8, 4-3). The Illini shot 55 percent and grabbed more rebounds than the poor-shooting Wildcats.

Yet in a game where the stats went Illinois' way, the chess match belonged to Northwestern.

During the media timeout with 7:26 to go, Illinois led 51-44 largely because its defenders got out to the perimeter and frustrated Northwestern's shooters.

John Shurna, the Big Ten's fifth-leading scorer, had just 7 points as Bill Cole and Brandon Paul took turns hounding him on the arc. As a team, the Wildcats were 3-for-16 in the second half.

So what did NU coach Bill Carmody do during the timeout? He drew up a classic backdoor play for Shurna. Mirkovic got the ball in the high post and Shurna slipped past Cole and took a bounce pass in for a two-hand dunk that rejuvenated all of the purple in the gym. It was NU's only backdoor all night.

"That's why I love playing for Coach Carmody, because he makes such smart decisions," Mirkovic said. "He recognized that guy (Cole) was going to shoot the gap and we went out and executed it perfectly."

But that wasn't all. Remember last year's game when Illinois erased a 14-point deficit in the final 5:21? Illini assistant Wayne McClain convinced Bruce Weber to start running a full-court press to speed up the Wildcats.

This time around Carmody's assistants convinced him to start pressing to get the Illini out of control.

In addition, before Demetri McCamey initiated the offense in the frontcourt, the Wildcats sent Juice Thompson rushing over to join Jeremy Nash for double teams.

Illinois couldn't handle it. During the game's crucial stretch McCamey picked up 2 offensive fouls and committed another turnover, freshman Brandon Paul charged on a fastbreak and missed a hurried 19-footer, and freshman D.J. Richardson rushed a 15-foot miss.

"We lost our poise," Weber said. "Credit to them."

The last time Illinois lost to Northwestern - way back on Jan. 14, 2004 - it triggered something in the Illini and started a 14-1 run that lasted until the Big Ten tournament final.

Nothing remotely similar seems possible this time. Not after Weber stopped his players from talking to the media "because they don't talk to each other.

"Somebody's got to take this team and go with it," Weber said. "But right now it's not happening."

lwillhite@dailyherald.com