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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) – Northwestern’s formula for Sunday’s 74-70 win against Illinois was a familiar one: stick to a guard-heavy six-man rotation, and hit open shots.
Three days after Wildcats coach Bill Carmody unveiled a new lineup that had John Shurna playing with four guards in an 84-74 home win against Nebraska, the same group led Northwestern to back-to-back wins in Big Ten play for the first time this season.
Shurna led four Northwestern players in double figures with 24 points, and the Wildcats were able to exploit defensive matchups to shoot 60 percent from the floor.
“Coach feels like it gives us a big opportunity, and I think it opens the floor up a little bit for us,” Shurna said of the lineup. “Everyone is able to make plays. It causes some mismatches.”
Reggie Hearn added 20 points on 7 of 8 shooting for the Wildcats (14-8, 4-6), while Dave Sobolewski scored 14 points and Drew Crawford had 13 points for Northwestern.
Brandon Paul scored 22 points and Meyers Leonard had 21 for Illinois (16-7, 5-5). Leonard was 10 of 12 from the field, making his first nine shots.
Northwestern’s offensive play carried over from the Nebraska game, in which the Wildcats knocked down 14 3-pointers with the same six-man rotation to end a three-game losing streak.
“Anytime you can get a win on the road in the Big Ten, it’s great,” Shurna said. “There are no easy games in the Big Ten. This is a big win for us. I think everyone really contributed.”
Northwestern looked to attack the defensive mismatches, especially early on.
With Illinois playing Paul, who is 6-foot-4, on Shurna to attempt to slow the Big Ten’s leading scorer, the 7-foot-1 Leonard was forced to guard the 6-foot-4 Hearn.
Hearn scored 16 points in the first half, including four 3-pointers, as he was able to repeatedly get away from Leonard. Hearn had previously only had seven 3-pointers in the first nine conference games, but made three over Leonard in the first eight minutes on Sunday.
“He had the game of a lifetime, and sometimes that’s what you need to go on the road and win,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “Hearn got them off to a good start and now they’re feeling good about themselves at the start of the game, and then we’re playing catch-up.”
The Wildcats opened the game with four quick 3-pointers to take an 18-9 lead, but a driving layup from Tracy Abrams topped a 20-11 run for Illinois to tie the game at 29. Crawford responded with a reverse layup followed by a fast-break dunk to swing the momentum back to the Wildcats, and Northwestern headed into halftime with a 36-33 lead.
The Illini didn’t hold a lead until they went ahead 39-38 with 16 minutes left in the second half. An Abrams jumper with 5:17 left tied the score at 56-56, but Northwestern went on a 16-8 run from there to take control.
The win gives Northwestern its badly needed first conference road win as it prepares for the final stretch of the season that will determine its postseason fate.
“We’ve lost two games at home this year, so we had to get something back on the road,” Carmody said. “If you’re going to do anything, you have to be 500 in conference, and this is a step towards that.”
Illinois once again followed up a win against a national top-10 team with a loss to a team in the bottom part of the Big Ten standings. The Illini had beaten No. 9 Michigan State 42-41 on Tuesday, ending a three-game losing streak.
Earlier in Big Ten play, Illinois followed a win in Champaign over No. 3 Ohio State with a loss at Penn State.
“It would be an understatement to say that it is a disappointing loss for us,” Weber said. “(Northwestern) played their butts off and shot the ball so well, but I thought the last couple games we were able to do what we needed to do in terms of playing hard, and it wasn’t the case tonight.”
The game proved to be a reversal of sorts from the teams’ earlier matchup. Illinois won 57-56 on Jan. 4 in Evanston after holding Shurna to just three second-half points after the senior exploded for 17 in the first half.
This time, however, Shurna led the Wildcats with 17 second-half points after being limited to just seven in the first half.
“I have to give credit to my teammates,” Shurna said. “They were finding me in positions to score. If we focus on our offense, good shots will open up.”
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