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Illini look to build off win over Spartans

Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Friday he didn’t want to experience another “Groundhog Day” following a win over a Top-10 opponent.

The first time Illinois beat a Top-10 team this season it couldn’t create any momentum. Following its win over No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10, Illinois dropped three consecutive games.

The Illini snapped that three-game losing streak with a win over No. 10 Michigan State on Tuesday. They’ll now face Northwestern in Champaign on Sunday.

“It was a good win,” Weber said of the Michigan State game. “Now, where do you go from there? The thing I talked to our kids about was, ‘Let’s turn to game No. 2. It’s Groundhog Day from after Ohio State where you had a Top-10 win.’ That time we had nine days off, but we did not respond very well at Penn State. Our immaturity cost us there.

“Now, how do our guys respond? Do we keep playing as hard? Do we keep defending?”

Illinois’ 42-41 win over Michigan State won’t be remembered for its beauty. The Illini shot 15-of-46 from the field, 3-of-17 from 3-point range and 9-of-17 from the foul line. They averaged 0.74 points per possession.

When Weber walked away from the win, he was as sick to his stomach about his team’s offensive output as anyone. But when he watched it again, he was surprised what he discovered.

“After the game, I’m thinking, ‘Man, our offense looks horrible,’ but when I went back and watched the tape we had some shots,” Weber said. “I’m not telling you every possession was perfect, but we had some shots. A few in the first half hung on the rim and popped out. Even down the stretch, Meyers [Leonard] has a dunk off the little flip, and he never misses those. Brandon [Paul] had a look -- 18-, 17-footer. We miss all our free throws.”

Illinois has had trouble shooting from deep all season, but lately it’s been an ever bigger issue. Since connecting on 11-of-18 3-pointers in their win over Ohio State, the Illini have made 16 of their last 72 3-point attempts for a .222 shooting percentage. For the season, Illinois has a .313 percentage, which ranks 281st in the country.

“I just hope some shots start going in,” Weber said. “Somewhere here we have to make some shots. I hope Sunday afternoon.”

Weber expects Northwestern to play to the Illini’s shooting woes and set up in their customary 1-3-1 zone. Illinois was 4-of-10 from 3-point range in the teams’ first meeting, which the Illini won 57-56.

“I would bet money Northwestern will jump out in a 1-3-1 zone, and they’re going to sit in that 1-3-1 zone until we figure it out,” Weber said. “We’ve had some success against them and their zones, but we’re going to have to do it on Sunday.”

Whether his team’s shooting does come around or not, Weber was hopeful the Illini would continue playing with the type of energy he’s seen in their last two games. He felt the Michigan State win was determined by the Illini’s defense and effort.

“I think the whole tone of the game was set by Tracy Abrams diving on the ball, just throwing his body at a loose ball, which then became contagious,” Weber said. “If we had done that obviously a few other games, we’d be up at the top of the league. I hope we’ve learned from those other games, and we’re making progress.”