Big Ten

Shaking season-long free-throw woes, Dererk Pardon plays hero at the line for Northwestern

Shaking season-long free-throw woes, Dererk Pardon plays hero at the line for Northwestern

SALT LAKE CITY — If you've been watching Northwestern all season, Dererk Pardon stepping to the free-throw line to take high-pressure shots in the NCAA tournament might not have been the most confidence-inspiring sight.

But Pardon, who shot 51.7 percent from the charity stripe this year, stepped up in a gigantic way.

In the final four minutes and six seconds of Northwestern's 68-66 win over Vanderbilt on Thursday, Pardon knocked down six free throws, helping the Wildcats at the most critical of times.

But while that was something that surprised all onlookers, it didn't catch any of Pardon's teammates by surprise.

"I wasn't surprised at all," Scottie Lindsey said. "That's a part of his game that he works on all the time. He takes pride in trying to be a good free-throw shooter, and today it worked out. He was very clutch for us down the stretch."

"I shoot free throws with Dererk all the time, and he makes every one," Sanjay Lumpkin said. "He'll go 10-for-10 multiple times. We all have confidence in him to knock them down."

Well he sure did Thursday, and it's hard to imagine the Cats winning without Pardon making those six shots.

Vanderbilt shrunk what was once a 15-point second-half lead down to two with about five minutes to play. After both teams took turns missing 3-pointers, Pardon hit the first two to stretch things back to five with about four minutes left.

Vandy kept coming, and the second pair of foul shots came a minute and a half later, when three straight Commodore free throws sliced the gap to just a point.

Vandy kept coming, and the Commodores had a lead with a minute and a half to play and again with 38 seconds left. Pardon again hit two free throws, this time in the final minute to tie the game and then put the Cats back on top.

Pardon's free throws didn't just go in, they were as big as they come.

"I just had to focus," Pardon said. "I feel like when I focus, I make my free throws. A lot of times when I miss them, I'm not as focused. So I just had to focus in, lock in, and I felt like I was good.

"That's the moment I think about all the time in practice when I'm shooting my free throws: down one or down two, and I have to make both or I have to make one. Having that pressure on during practice where it comes game time, you knock them down."

Pardon has obviously been a huge part of things for Northwestern this season, and Thursday he was statistically the team's second-best performer, putting up a double-double for the fourth time this season. He finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds.

"He's got a quite confidence to him. He's a man of few words, he doesn't say much. He works his tail off," Chris Collins said. "After every practice, there's nobody in the gym more. He's doing free-throw shooting games, pressure free throws with coaches, with other teammates. He's worked incredibly hard. And he's got a calmness to him that I love. It wasn't going well for him in the first half, he had some turnovers, they were doubling him, getting the ball out of his hands. And he just steadied it, and I thought he played a fantastic second half."

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

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USA TODAY

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

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Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

Justin Jackson is one of the top 10 rushers in Big Ten history for a reason: He's very, very good at this football thing.

But it was a big play Jackson made not as a ball-carrier but as a pass-catcher Saturday that set up Northwestern's second straight win, a 17-10 takedown of Iowa in Evanston.

Jackson took a pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson and went all the way down to the 1-yard line, picking up 23 yards and shedding multiple tacklers on the game's biggest play.

Two plays later, Thorson plunged in for the go-ahead score. Iowa failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt on its ensuing overtime possession, ending it with a dropped pass that finished the game.

The game's result rapidly altered the social-media conversation, which moments prior had been mighty critical of Pat Fitzgerald, who made a controversial decision at the end of regulation.

Iowa tied the game at 10 on a field goal inside of two minutes to play, forced to kick after a false start was committed on fourth and 1. Fitzgerald had a minute and a half and two timeouts to try to get his own team into field-goal range for a shot at a win but instead ran the clock out and headed to overtime.

Fitzgerald explained after the game that the blustery wind at Ryan Field played a big role in that decision, plus his team had a long way to go against an Iowa defense that played well throughout the game.

Northwestern's defense was very strong, too, holding Iowa to 312 total yards, only 89 of which came on the ground. Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley was also picked off in the second half for the game's only turnover.

Jackson finished with 93 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards. Thorson was 21-for-36 passing the ball for 192 yards. Backup running back Jeremy Larkin scored the Wildcats' lone regulation touchdown.

The win improved Northwestern to 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in Big Ten play. After a 2-3 start, the Cats have won back-to-back games and take on a ranked Michigan State team next weekend.