There was something spooky about Illinois' thrilling 60-59 win over Northwestern last night - how eerily familiar it all was. Of course, Illinois and Northwestern matchups have not been all that competitive of late. In their only meeting last season, for instance, the Illini pounded the Wildcats by 33 points. The year before, Illinois swept the season series, winning both games by double digits. In fact, the Fighting Illini have now won 10 straight over Bill Carmody's team, and last night's contest was easily the closest in that span.
But that wasn't why this game was so familiar. Rather, it seemed like two Illini teams were haunting the present squad in Welsh-Ryan arena. First up was last year's squad, led by seniors Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt. These players were gifted rebounders, but horrible free throw shooters. As a team last season, the Illini shot just 60.8% from the free throw line. This year, they're at 71.3%. But last night, Bruce Weber's team looked positively 2008, shooting 2-12 from the charity stripe. Hindered by this terrible display, the Illini dug themselves into a 14 point deficit with about 5 minutes to play.
And that's when Illinois was greeted by its second visitor - the 2004-05 version of the Fighting Illini. If you were to rank the greatest moments in the program's history, that team's comeback against Arizona in the Elite Eight surely sits near the top. And last night, the Illini put on the same kind of show. No, the game wasn't nearly as important (unlike the '05 team, Demetri McCamey and company were not playing for a trip to the Final Four. All they were playing for was the elusive 2nd road win in conference play), but the comeback was nearly as impressive. Shooting guard Trent Meacham stole the show, scoring 13 points in the game's final five minutes, and also forcing a key turnover to set up McCamey's game winner (off a dish from Meacham), the final two of McCamey's team high 21 points. Luka Mirkovic led the Wildcats with 14 points on 7 shots, to go with 12 rebounds. Box score.
Our movies and books tell us that after someone is visited by some benevolent ghost, it's to teach them a lesson. I'm not sure what the lesson was last night (Make your free throws. Actually, nevermind.), but in any case, it was a big win for a team trying to keep pace with the other teams vying for 2nd place in the conference.
For Northwestern, this was a heartbreaking loss, no doubt about it. It was a winnable game against a top 20 opponent, a signature win sure to catch the attention of the Selection Committee. Frankly, the Wildcats have been a dollar short all season. Close losses against Butler, Stanford, Purdue, Penn State, Iowa, and now Illinois could have all easily been wins but for a bad possession or two. A tournament appearance is still possible, but that dream is starting to slip away. Looking at the remainder of the schedule, even if the Wildcats win 4 out of their remaining 7 games, they would likely still have some work to do in the Big Ten Tournament.
The conference has the night off before play resumes Saturday. Wisconsin will host Ohio State and ESPN's Gameday crew - no doubt we'll be hearing lots about the Big Ten's physical play this season.