EVANSTON — Basketball is a simple game.
Typically, the team that puts the ball through the hoop the most is the winner.
But, that’s been a problem for the Illinois Fighting Illini in Big Ten Conference play and on Sunday evening, a horrific shooting performance allowed the Northwestern Wildcats to snap a four-game losing streak with a 49-43 victory before 8,117 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
“I felt like we did not make enough plays on offense. I didn’t feel like we were nearly aggressive enough. I thought we were way too tentative offensively,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “We’re going to have to figure that out pretty quickly. I feel like it’s been that way now for a couple games.”
The Illini shot just 28.1 percent (18-of-64) from the field and that included a first half where they made just 6 of 31 shots (19.4 percent).
“Shots didn’t fall that the guys normally make and we can fix that,’’ said Illinois junior guard Tracy Abrams, who was the only Illini player in double figures with 13 points. “It’s not like it’s something that we can’t do.’’
But, it’s something that Illinois (13-4 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten) has not done well since the victory over Indiana (83-80 in overtime) on Dec. 31.
In the past three league games, the Illini are shooting a dismal 31.7 percent from the field (63-of-199) and the team is 16-of-61 from 3-point range.
“You have to stay aggressive. We can’t get passive because the shots aren’t falling,’’ said Illinois junior center Nnanna Egwu, who had six points and seven rebounds. It’s the seventh consecutive game that Egwu has failed to reach double digits.
Also failing to score 10 or more points on Sunday was junior guard Rayvonte Rice, who had just 8 points on 2-of-11 shooting. The former Champaign Centennial standout, who was the Big Ten leader in scoring at 18.8 points per game, didn’t make his first field goal until there was 8 minutes, 39 seconds left in the contest.
“We have to figure out what is going on with him. My first priority is to take care of those guys from a health perspective,’’ said Groce as Rice was seen being stretched out at the end of the bench in the first half. “At the end of the day, we play five and they play five. We didn’t get it done and they did.’’
But, Groce did say later that Illinois needed to get a couple of guys “right health-wise” as the Illini did travel to Northwestern without sophomore guard Mike LaTulip, who was out with a concussion.
That was also the reason that the Wildcats (8-9, 1-3) were playing without starting point guard Dave Sobolewski, but sophomore Tre Demps picked up the slack scoring 11 points including three 3-pointers late in the game during Northwestern’s 11-2 run that broken open a 34-34 tie.
“I’ve been at the gym all day for the last two days and I was just waiting for a good look. When I hit the first one I got a good rhythm going,” Demps said. “But the main thing was that my teammates believed in me.”
With the victory, Northwestern not only stopped a three-game conference losing skid with losses to Wisconsin by 27, to Michigan by 23 and at Iowa by 26, but it was also the first-ever Big Ten coaching victory for Chris Collins, who had been a long-time assistant at Duke. His father, Doug Collins, a former standout at Illinois State and a former coach of the Chicago Bulls, was at the game.
“That was a special night for us. Obviously, thinking of getting my first Big Ten win I never thought my team would have only 49 points,” Collins said. “I always liked to have 49 myself when I played.”
And the Wildcats won this contest with just 37 percent shooting, being outrebounded (40-36) and committing five more turnovers (11-6) than the Illini.
“We just didn’t get it done on the offensive end,’’ Groce said. “I thought our defense was plenty good enough to give us a chance to compete and win.’’
But, ultimately, the 19.4 percent shooting in the first half put Illinois into a hole against Northwestern, trailing 22-15 at halftime. And Groce pointed out three missed tip dunk attempts and a few missed layups during that opening 20 minutes.
“You have to covert a couple of those,’’ he said. “I thought our quality of shot was better in the first half than the second half. But you can’t miss layups and tip dunks.
“I didn’t think we would keep shooting 19 percent. I was really proud of them at the half for defending the way they did when we shoot that poorly.’’
Groce admittedly gave credit to Northwestern for playing good defense.
But, this was far from the type of performance the Illini were looking for after the 95-70 loss at Wisconsin on Wednesday.
“This one really hurts because it was a game that we looked forward to winning after Wisconsin,’’ Egwu said. “It will be on myself, Tracy, Joe (Bertrand) and (Jon) Ekey to provide leadership.’’
Abrams says it’s simple.
“We have to finish some more plays,’’ he said. “Adversity is going to come, it’s all about how you are going to respond.’’
Illinois will get a chance to respond fairly quickly as the Illini return to State Farm Center on Wednesday for an 8 p.m. contest against the Purdue Boilermakers, who got their first Big Ten win on Sunday with a 70-64 triumph over Nebraska.
Wednesday’s game will be televised by the Big Ten Network and it can be heard locally on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.