EVANSTON, Ill. -- The growing deficit and mounting frustration were hitting Trent Meacham, just as they had in recent road losses. And then, everything changed.
The familiar path took an odd twist, and by the time it was over, Meacham couldn't remember a game like this.
Demetri McCamey scored 21 points, including banking in the go-ahead jumper with 2.9 seconds left, and Illinois (No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 22 AP) rallied from 14 points down to beat Northwestern 60-59 on Thursday night.
Meacham scored 12 of his 15 points in the final 5 minutes as the Illini (20-5, 8-4 Big Ten) rallied from a 57-43 deficit and grabbed a victory that appeared out of reach.
"We're just thinking, 'Here we go again. We can't get stops when we need it. We can't make the plays when we need it,'" Meacham said.
Meacham hit a 3-pointer from the corner with a minute left and added a layup to make it a one-point game with 42.6 seconds left after a turnover by Northwestern (13-9, 4-7). Meacham then stripped Michael Thompson underneath the Wildcats basket with 14.7 seconds left, and he found McCamey on the right wing for the jumper that sent Illinois to its first road win since Dec. 30.
"We were thirsty and we wanted it more than Northwestern," McCamey said.
It was a stunning turn considering Northwestern had dominated most of the game and seemed poised to break its nine-game losing streak against Illinois.
"The whole game, I felt like we were just chasing them around and we couldn't make up any ground," Meacham said. "Finally, we were able to pick up some pressure and make some plays in the final minutes."
Eyeing their first postseason berth in a decade, Northwestern led by six points at halftime and was clinging to a 39-37 lead early in the second before going on a 12-0 run keyed by Kevin Coble that made it 51-37 with 11:17 left.
Coble scored five of his 14 points during that stretch, converting a nifty scoop layup and finishing it with a 3-pointer, but the Wildcats simply couldn't put this one away.
"It was a step backwards for us in terms of how we have been playing and handled situations like that," Coble said.
The late burst by Meacham and the shot by McCamey allowed the Illini to escape with their win 18th win in 19 games against Northwestern even though they struggled at the free-throw line (2-for-12) and had trouble defending the backdoor cuts and the outside shooters at times. Yet, the defense tightened up down the stretch.
"I've been in it 30 years now, and this is one I'll definitely remember for a long time," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.
Eyeing a high seed in the Big Ten tournament and an NCAA run, the Illini knew this could be a difficult game even though they have dominated Northwestern. Even during bad seasons, the Wildcats gave opponents fits with their Princeton offense and 1-3-1 zone, and they did just that for most of the game.
McCamey tried to carry Illinois early in the second half, scoring 10 points and hitting two 3s in the first 4 minutes, but the Illini still trailed 39-37.
Northwestern's Luka Mirkovic, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds, hit a jumper to start the 12-0 run. Coble drove across the lane for a scoop that drew a roar from the Wildcats fans, and he and Craig Moore made 3-pointers that made it 51-37.
With a large portion of the crowd decked in orange, the Illini gave their fans plenty to cheer in the closing minutes. Particularly Meacham.
On that strip, he was wondering if Illinois should foul, and he was surprised Northwestern didn't let more time tick off the clock.
"We just wanted to keep the pressure and speed them up, and that's what we did," Meacham said. "He drove, I was able to get a hand on the ball and it went off him. That was big because if they would have just held it, we would have had six, seven seconds to put up a shot."
And when Northwestern cut him off on the final possession, Meacham didn't try to force the shot. Instead, he let McCamey take it and the Illini walked away with a dramatic win.
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