Illinois runs away from Northwestern 86-60
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Northwestern came to Illinois' home court Saturday night riding a four-game win streak while the Illini had lost three straight.
Within minutes of the tip-off, both of those streaks were done - buried under a wave of 3-pointers.
Illinois (18-11, 8-8 Big Ten) hit 14 3-pointers and Rayvonte Rice scored 19 points in his return to the starting lineup to handle Northwestern, 86-60.
Rice also added seven rebounds. But the senior guard, who hadn't started since early January after a broken hand and a suspension, talked after the game about the production up and down the Illinois lineup.
''We were just out there playing for each other,'' he said. ''We weren't caring who was scoring.''
Four other Illini scored in double figures. Ahmad Starks had 17 points, Malcolm Hill added 15 and Kendrick Nunn 14. Maverick Morgan contributed 10 points and a game-high eight rebounds.
''I told the staff we were going to play well today. I could just feel it,'' said Illinois coach John Groce, who complained the past couple of weeks that his team had neither practiced nor played consistently well.
Illinois came into the game badly needing wins as it tries to cling to the NCAA Tournament bubble and played like it, Northwestern (14-15, 5-11) coach Chris Collins said.
''They played like a desperate team, a hungry team fighting for a win, and they got what they deserved,'' he said.
Alex Olah led the Wildcats with 18 points.
Northwestern's only real hope came early. The Wildcats closed to 12-9 with 16:28 left in the first half on a jumper by Bryant McIntosh.
But that hope faded fast.
From there Illinois went on a 33-14 run to close the first half, and took a 45-23 lead to the locker room and the game was all but over.
By the end, Illinois had hit 14 of 29 3-point attempts, 48.3 percent.
The shots came from up and down the roster.
Nunn came into the game on a scoring slump but got the flood started with a 3 on the game's first shot.
Reserve forward Austin Colbert, who averages 2 points a game and seldom strays out of the lane on offense, hit one later in the first half.
Hill had three by halftime.
When Hill hit his first 3 of the game with 7:33 left in the first half to build Illinois' lead to 27-12, Wildcat leading scorer Tre Demps could only answer at the other end with a shot clanked off the front of the rim.
Demps dropped his head for a second in obvious frustration.
For the Wildcats, it was clear it was going to be that kind of night.
Demps, who averages almost 13 points, finished with a quiet seven points on 3 of 8 shooting.
Rice's return to the starting lineup followed a rocky season for the senior guard. He broke a hand in practice the week after the Ohio State game on Jan. 3 and, while still out injured, was suspended by Illinois coach John Groce Jan. 31 for an unspecified violation of team rules. He's played off the bench since he came back Feb. 12 against Michigan.
He remains the team's leading scorer coming into Saturday, averaging 16.2 points, and the leading rebounder at 6.6 boards.
Northwestern: Coming into Saturday's game, Northwestern rode the 3-pointer to four straight wins. The Wildcats averaged 9.8 3s in those victories over Iowa, Minnesota, Penn State and Indiana but managed just 5 of 20 against Illinois.
Illinois: The 3 was the Illini weapon of choice Saturday, but defense has been the key to their wins. Coming into Saturday's game, Illinois held opponents to fewer than 70 points in 17 of their last 18 wins and fewer than 60 in 11 of their last 13 victories.
For a game that got out of hand early, tension grew in the second half. Sanjay Lumpkin was called for a flagrant foul on Rayvonte Rice just under five minutes into the second half and Rice, visibly upset, had to be escorted to the bench by an official to cool off. Minutes later, Illini guard Jaylon Tate hit the floor in what appeared to be a trip that was not called. And with 10:55 left in the game, Illinois' Leron Black and Northwestern's Scottie Lindsey were both given technical fouls for an exchange under the Wildcat basket.
Collins said his team looked fatigued, something he said he's been worried about the past few games.
''We've put a lot into our last couple of weeks to turn our season around,'' he said. ''Right from the start I didn't feel that same pop I've felt form our team the last four or five games.''
Northwestern plays Michigan at home on Tuesday.
Illinois hosts Nebraska on Wednesday.