EVANSTON — A lightning-quick streak of instant offense made all the difference in the world for Northwestern on Saturday night.
Tre Demps rose to the occasion with four consecutive made 3-pointers in a crucial second-half stretch, sending the Wildcats to a lead they didn't relinquish in a 58-56 win over the visiting Illinois Fighting Illini at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
With eight minutes remaining in the game, Illinois led by four. But Demps absolutely caught fire, splashing home triples on four consecutive possessions to turn that 46-42 Illini lead into a 54-49 lead for the Cats with five and a half minutes to play. There wasn't much more offense from there, with a Maverick Morgan layup cutting the deficit to three and Scottie Lindsey and Malcolm Hill swapping pairs of made free throws.
Illinois fumbled away a few late chances, missing free throws, missing shots and turning the ball over on multiple occasions. One of those turnovers turned into a fastbreak layup for Demps to put the Cats ahead by five with a minute left, but Kendrick Nunn immediately answered with a 3 to make it a two-point game. The Illini had a chance to tie or win the game in the final seconds, with Hill first getting fouled, then not even getting a shot off when Illinois inbounded the ball with two seconds left.
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Prior to Demps' heroics, it was Lindsey doing damage for the Cats. He had a big game, scoring 18 points and hitting four 3-pointers. With the two teams trading buckets and leads in the early stages of the second half, Lindsey tied the game and then gave Northwestern a lead when he hit back-to-back 3s. That lead disappeared pretty quickly, though, with Demps earning it back later in the period.
Demps also finished with 18, the majority of that coming during that all-important stretch. He was just 6-for-15 from the field and 4-for-10 from 3-point range.
The Illini struggled mightily shooting the ball, shooting just 28.6 percent from the field in the first half. Despite that, they led at the break. In the end, Illinois posted a 36.8-percent shooting mark on the game. The Illini had 14 second-chance points off 13 offensive rebounds, winning the overall rebounding battle, 40-31.
Northwestern turned its fortunes around by taking better care of the ball in the second half. After turning it over 10 times in the first 20 minutes, the Cats coughed it up just twice in the final 20 minutes.
Nunn finished with a team-high 13 points for Illinois, Morgan and Jalen Coleman-Lands each adding 12. Coleman-Lands was the Illini's driving force early, and he finished with four made 3s. Hill had only seven points.
The win sent the Cats to 17-9 overall and 5-8 in the Big Ten. Next up is a Tuesday-night trip to Purdue.
The Illini dropped to 11-14 overall and 3-9 in the league with the loss, their fourth in the last five games and ninth in the last 12. Next up is a Tuesday-night game against Rutgers.