CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- Northwestern had battled back from an
early 12-point deficit to tie Illinois with 16:53 to play.
It was time for Dee Brown to go to work.
After making just one of his four shots in the first half, Brown
went on a seven-point scoring spree. He drained a long 3-pointer
and, on the next trip down the court, was fouled while making
another and converted the free throw for a four-point play.
Brown's spurt gave the Illini (No. 13 ESPN/USA Today, No. 14 AP) a 36-29 lead and sent them on to a
63-47 victory Wednesday night.
The spark of energy was just what the Illini (21-4, 7-4 Big Ten)
needed after two straight losses and struggling against
Northwestern's zone defense much of the night.
"I think that's what we've been emphasizing. Energy.
Enthusiasm. Just have fun," said Brown, who finished with 16
points. "You've got to have fun playing basketball. We've got to
bring the fun back."
Even after Brown's rally, Northwestern (12-11, 4-7) mounted a
final push with a 12-2 run that trimmed a 13-point lead to three.
But Illinois answered with 14 straight points to put the game away.
"Our guys were worn out," Wildcats coach Bill Carmody said.
"It just seemed they were a little fresher than we were."
Northwestern played without top scorer Vedran Vukusic, who had
been averaging 20.2 points per game. His string of 81 consecutive
starts snapped because of pain in his lower back that began earlier
in the week. Carmody said he would be evaluated on Thursday.
"Obviously, we need his contribution on offense. He's been a
great scorer for us," said Mohamed Hachad, who led the Wildcats
with 17 points. "If you're going to come back and score on
offense, he's a big target and we didn't have him tonight."
The Illini, who had lost consecutive games for the first time in
two seasons, jumped out to a 15-3 lead but Hachad hit two 3s and
the Wildcats took advantage of sloppy Illinois play to keep the
game from getting away.
"We have not dealt with early leads very well," coach Bruce
Weber said. "Once they made their little run we got very
tentative. Almost like playing on eggshells."
Rich McBride led Illinois with 17 points, including going 4-of-8
from 3-point range. Brian Randle added 10 points, including a
thunderous putback dunk of a miss by Brown that brought the
Assembly Hall crowd to its feet and gave Illinois a 55-45 lead with
4:29 to go.
"To get a dunk like that or a dunk like James', it really
breaks the other team's spirit," Randle said. "It's a huge swing
of emotion in the game."
Illinois took the 15-3 lead behind two 3-pointers and a jumper
from McBride and baskets from Augustine and Shaun Pruitt. But
Northwestern held Illinois scoreless for a 5:25 stretch of the
first half and battled back to trail 27-20 at halftime.
The Wildcats wiped out that deficit in the first 3:07 of the
second half and tied the game on Vince Scott's two free throws
before Brown went on his seven-point run.
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