CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In a reverse way of Friday night’s near upset loss at Nebraska, Illinois avoided another regrettable defeat to a team near the bottom of the Big Ten Conference standings.
Illinois never trailed in a 73-66 home victory over Northwestern but certainly didn’t cruise without nervous moments against a school that came to Champaign on a 11-game losing streak.
After building a first-half lead as big as 18 points, No. 5 Illinois (15-5, 11-3) saw its lead continue to dwindle thanks to Northwestern suddenly being able to seemingly hit every three-pointer they looked at and Illinois going through a lackadaisical offensive stretch.
"This grind is making us into a team that has to find different ways to get a win," Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said. "We didn't shoot the ball well, missed free throws and it was difficult for long stretches again. It was multiple guys stepping up."
Northwestern (6-13, 3-12) was trying to get its third win in Champaign in four trips to the in-state rival and no answer for Kofi Cockburn inside (17 points, 10 rebounds) and what is becoming normal behavior down the stretch of games from Ayo Dosunmu as the National Player of the Year candidate had eight points in the final four minutes of action.
"I know there are going to be nights where maybe I don't need to get 30 (points) in order to win but that's the God given talents the Lord has given me to be an ultimate playmaker," Dosunmu said. "Whatever situation I'm in, hopefully I can come out successful in it."
Dosunmu, who was seen more at the point guard spot due to foul trouble from Trent Frazier and a below average night from freshman Andre Curbelo had just three points during the Under-8 media timeout and ended the night with 13 points as he was 4 of 5 from the field including back-to-back three-point shots to put the Wildcats away.
Illinois’ 10-3 conference record is its best through 13 games since the 2005 Big Ten championship team started 13-0 en route to a 15-1 league record. This week is the first time the Illini appear in the Top 5 of a February Associated Press poll since 2005, and just the fourth time in the last 65 seasons (1989, 2001 and 2005).
Dosunmu’s final stretch effort allowed ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt to open his nightly show with the junior guard’s candidacy for the school’s first ever Naismith National Player of the Year honor. Dosunmu is still on pace to become just the second Big Ten player since 1993 to average 20 points, six rebounds and five assists potentially joining Ohio State’s Evan Turner, who was the National Player of the Year in the 2009-10 season.
"I think (Dosunmu) is a national player of the year candidate and in my opinion, I think he should be leading that area but I'm obviously very, very biased," Underwood said. "He deserves that kind of attention and most importantly, our team is winning. He's doing it in a lot of areas, how he's doing and we feel great about it. He should be in that conversation."
Northwestern missed all 10 three-point attempts in the first 20 minutes of action that saw them down 38-26 at the halftime buzzer. However, Chris Collins’ squad hit three of its first four threes in the second half and nailed 6 of 15 from beyond the arc to close the deficit to a one-possession game in the final four minutes and 44 seconds.
With Cockburn in foul trouble throughout the final 15 minutes of the first half, Giorgi Bezhanishvili had 10 points off the bench to make sure Northwestern’s bigs couldn’t get comfortable on defense against the Illini center position. Cockburn is one of seven players nationally averaging at least 17 points and 10 rebounds, and he is the only player in the NCAA averaging at least 15 points and 10 rebounds while shooting at least 65 percent.
Northwestern was led by third-year sophomore Chase Audige’s 22 points but needed 21 shots to get to that figure.
Illinois is next slated to take the floor at Williams Arena when play at Minnesota (13-8, 6-8) in a return game after the Illini defeated the Gophers 92-65 on Dec. 15 in the Big Ten Conference opener for both teams.