CHICAGO — Illinois needed overtime to beat Northwestern on Wednesday night in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago.
After a slow first half, the Illini found their stride in the second half behind a big game from freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili, along with big plays from sophomore Trent Frazier and junior Andres Feliz.
Here are five keys to the victory, which sets Illinois for an 8:30 p.m. game against Iowa Thursday night.
It appears the sinus infection that Bezhanishvili had been suffering from down the stretch of the season is in the past. Bezhanishvili danced through the post for layups, spin moves and hook shots, all while turning in a strong defensive game.
Bezhanishvili scored 26 points, including the first 14 points of the game. It was his highest scoring total since he scored 35 points against Rutgers on Feb. 9 and his second highest scoring total of the season.
There's hardly a resemblance from the freshman who scored in double figures seven times in his first 15 games.
"Probably don't have enough time, but, yeah, here's a guy that to go do that on this stage in this moment, he's light years (ahead)," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of Bezhanishvili's growth. "He's come so far."
Feliz was all over
With 35 seconds left in regulation and Illinois trailing by one 59-58, Andres Feliz drove throw the lane and was blocked by Northwestern's Miller Kopp. Feliz got his own offensive rebound hit the layup, was fouled and converted the and-1 play to give Illinois a two-point lead.
He hit a pair of free throws in overtime to spark an 8-0 run and nailed a runner to give Illinois a four-point lead later in the extra period. Feliz finished with 11 points, a season-high 10 rebounds and six assists, which was tied for a season high.
"That was our goal: Pick each other up when we're down, and that's what we did," Feliz said.
Feliz missed two layups at the end of regulation that would have avoided overtime, but Underwood said he wouldn't change a thing about the play calls.
"He just — I'm running out of superlatives and adjectives and everything else to say about him and his game: That was a smile and a dap, he goes, 'I got you, coach,'" Underwood said. "Next time I'll run the same play or some sort of play to him just like that again, and he'll convert it. We'll dap again and smile. It's part of the game."
Guards pick apart Wildcats without Law
Northwestern senior Vic Law entered Wednesday's game as the team's leading scorer and averaged 11 points against Illinois in two regular season games this season.
But Law missed the game because of injury, and his presence may have been missed the most on defense.
With Law healthy, Northwestern coach Chris Collins had the combination of Law, A.J. Turner and Anthony Gaines to match up with the guard trio from Illinois. Without that, the Illini crashed through the lane in overtime and either hit layups or sprayed the ball to the 3-point line.
"It hurt especially against this team," Collins said. "The way they get after you, their quickness. I thought it really showed up in the overtime because they really spread the floor. Everybody was a little tired. I had one less defender out there than I needed, and that's not knocking the guys that we had on the floor. ... Forget about what he does as a scorer and all those things. I thought we missed him defensively, and the ability to keep the ball in front, especially late in the game in overtime when the guards kind of took over."
Frazier, in particular, dominated in the second half and overtime. He didn't commit a turnover and had four shots that tied the game or gave Illinois a led. His 21 points were his highest since Jan. 30 against Minnesota. The game came after Frazier took just two shots against Penn State on Sunday.
"I don't determine shots in the game," Frazier said. "Whoever got it going, that's who we're going to get the ball to. Fortunately that was me tonight. My teammates did an unbelievable job of finding me and trusting me to make big shots down the stretch. Shots, you know, it doesn't matter how many shots I take. I'm going to play what coach wants us to do, run the offense, and just be a good point guard out there. And I was making some shots tonight, and I got it going. So I continued to be aggressive and I was successful."
Overcoming bad first half
Illinois had a three-point halftime lead, but it wasn't pretty and the the team benefited from a worse half from Northwestern.
The Illini shot 40 percent from the field, 33 percent from three and turned the ball over five times. The Wildcats, though, shot 32.4 percent from the field, 20 percent from three, and had six turnovers.
For the game, Northwestern shot 34.7 percent from the field, the third lowest percentage allowed by the Illinois defense this season.
Illinois made all four of its field goal attempts in overtime and shot 43.8 percent for the game.
"The game was probably about as ugly a first half as you're ever going to see, and yet Giorgi was tremendous," Underwood said. "We felt like he got really good looks in the last game that he played; they just didn't go down."
Painting the arena
Illinois hasn't had an advantage in the paint the last two games. On Sunday against Penn State, both teams scored 22 points in the paint. In the Indiana game before that, the Hoosiers ran roughshod over Illinois in the paint with a 52-26 advantage.
On Wednesday, the Illini dominated the paint with 42 points compared to 26 from Northwestern, but there could have been many more.
Illinois shot 18 of 33 on layups and Northwestern was 11 of 18.