Jan. 13, 2014
NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at the Northwestern men's basketball team's first Big Ten win of the season, a victory over 23rd-ranked Illinois on Sunday night.
The game is over and the victory is secure and it is time to exult, yet Chris Collins simply pumps his fist and turns left. His `Cats have just defeated Illinois, have just snapped their four-game losing streak, have just delivered him the first Big Ten win of his nascent career. But there is protocol to maintain, respect to be shown, and so here he walks toward Illini coach John Groce and shakes his hand and the hands of all his players.
Now he turns right and heads onto the court and spots his assistant Brian James, and the two rush toward each other and embrace like a pair of bears. Then they break and he continues across the court and, as he walks, he points toward that spot in the stands where his father sits and grins broadly. They lock eyes and the father, standing at his seat, puts two fingers to his lips, throws them toward his son and then silently mouths, "Love ya."
"It's one of those things you'll look back on. They're milestones. As coaches, you always look back to your first win, and certainly your first league win," Collins will later say. "But I really don't want this to be about me. I wasn't the guy out there. They were.
"It's about Drew Crawford. It's about JerShon Cobb. It's about (Alex) Olah. It's about (Tre) Demps. It's about (Kale) Abrahamson. Niko (Cerina). Those guys who played the heavy minutes tonight. When we end the season and I look back and I can think back about winning that first game here at home against a really good team like Illinois, I'll feel great about it. But I really want to celebrate for my guys. I know how much they've been through."
The previous fortnight had been a long-dark night for his `Cats, who in that stretch had fallen to DePaul at the buzzer and to Wisconsin and Michigan and Iowa in routs. Now, on this Sunday night at Welsh-Ryan, they would take on the 23rd-ranked Illini without point Dave Sobolewski, who a day earlier had suffered a concussion at practice that left him day-to-day for the future.
Cobb would be the `Cat tapped to replace him and, from the start, he handled his new duties with aplomb. He fed Olah for a short hook and this game's first basket, and then authored the second himself with a jumper. He added a three just three minutes later and, throughout, calmly choreographed a `Cat offense the Illini didn't press even with its point absent. "I didn't have to deal with that (pressure)," Cobb later said with a chuckle. "So I was just making sure we were taking our time."
"Nah," said Groce when asked if he ever thought of pressuring the point-less `Cats. "We're going to do what we do. That's what's been good to us for the bulk of the season. We're going to do what we do. And to be honest with you, watching them on film...I thought Cobb had played some good minutes for them at the point recently. We had talked about that even before we knew Sobolewski was out for the game. I thought Cobb got them off to a great start. I thought he played really well."
That would be true too of the `Cat defense, which limited the Illini to 15 points and 19.4 percent shooting in the first half, to 43 points and 28.1 percent shooting for the game. Sanjay Lumpkin, the redshirt freshman, shackled their guard Rayvonte Rice, holding the Big Ten's leading scorer (18.8 ppg) to just eight points on two-of-11 shooting. Crawford, their indomitable star, did the same to their other guard Joseph Bertrand, a 54 percent shooter who finished this one two-for-10. Then there was Olah.
The `Cat plan this night was to protect the paint, was to eliminate both the drive and the lob, was to force the Illini to beat them with the jump shot, and central to its success was the 7-foot center. "He," said Collins, "was the unsung hero. He stayed in front of their guards the whole game. He made them take tough shots over the top of him, then our guards were able to clean it up."
Lumpkin collected five rebounds and Crawford and Demps each had eight, and this recap summarizes the foundation of the `Cat win. Then there were those crucibles, those moments when a game turns, and the first of them arrived in the belly of the second half. The `Cats were up eight when they began at 13:10, but quickly the Illini got a dunk, a three, another three, a turnover and a fast break layup that tied this one up at 27 less than two minutes later. "I thought we had a little momentum there," Groce later said, and that was true too of their fans in Welsh-Ryan.
They were now in full cry as Collins called a timeout, but then they were silenced as Lumpkin dropped a pair of free throws, as Crawford dropped a three off a pass from Cobb, as Cobb himself dropped a floater to build the `Cat lead back up to five. "That (response) was huge because we haven't been doing that. We haven't been doing that," Collins later said. "We've been playing really well, we've been hanging with teams, and then when they turn the heat up on us, we've kind of folded.
"We talked about that. We showed film. We talked about, different stretches of games, you've got to be tough. They hit those two threes, they got a steal, they got the layup, they're getting excited. We took a time out and we responded right away. I think that showed a lot about our guys because that's something we've been struggling with the last couple of games."
"Their kids stepped up and made plays. You've got to give them credit for that," echoed Groce. "They stepped up and they made them. When the shots became available to them, they knocked them down. They were big shots. Sometimes, that's the difference."
Yet his Ilini were not yet finished, and here they rushed back to a tie at 34 and now the final crucible of this game was at hand. This time the `Cat responder was Demps, who in the first half had missed both of his three-point attempts and gone one-of-five overall. But here, off a pass from Olah, he dropped a three from the top of the arc and then, after an Illinois basket, he dropped another from near the same spot. Two minutes of offensive futility now followed for both sides, but then--at 3:32--Demps delivered one more three from in front of his team's bench to push its lead to seven.
"I've been in the gym all day for the last few days. I was just waiting for a good look," he later said of this outburst. "When I hit the first one, I got a good rhythm going. But the main thing was my teammates believed in me. At halftime they said, `Keep shooting. You're taking great shots.` When you hear that, it gives you confidence. So I owe it all to my teammates."
Shooters often say the basket looks real big when they're on a roll. How big did it look to him?
"It looked real small in the first half. But in the second half it looked pretty big," he said. "But like I said, if it weren't for guys like Drew, JerSon telling me to keep shooting, that would have never happened. So I give all the credit to our leaders."
Now, at last, the Illini began to press and that produced some `Cat turnovers. "I take full responsibility," said Collins. "We had so much to get through (in preparation for the game), we really didn't have a chance to get through our press break. So we weren't as organized as we should have been, and that's on me." Yet, through these anxious minutes, the `Cats held firm, defending with the ardor that had served them so well all night. "We took a charge, we got a big rebound. We didn't let the turnovers dictate our next possession," said Collins.
Still, after a Rice three at 16 seconds, their lead was just two. But now Crawford hit a pair of free throws and then, after an Illini miss, he hit two more as their orange-clad fans streamed toward the exit. That was a fitting tableau for this--yes, the word fits here--gutty `Cat win, and then there was Collins hugging his assistant and recognizing his dad and heading off to be with his team. "It was fun to be able to celebrate with our guys in the locker room," he would later say. "We've had some tough losses the last couple weeks. To come back home and to perform like this and to win a really tough game, it's about them. I'm really proud of them."
"It was amazing," Demps finally said of that locker room celebration. "Just to be in there with my brothers, to hug each other, it was a feeling like no other."
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