March 14-- Mar. 14--Illinois is sticking around the Big Ten Tournament for at least another day. The Illini proved to be fighters in an ugly 74-69 overtime win against in-state rival Northwestern on Wednesday night at the United Center.
"These guys need to feel what this is all about," coach Brad Underwood said of the experience of advancing to the second round, where No. 11 seed Illinois will meet sixth-seeded Iowa on Thursday night.
Here are six takeaways from the game -- three for each team:
1. Giorgi Bezhanishvili added to his legacy.
Bezhanishivili had promised to salsa dance in the locker room after the game. But first athletic director Josh Whitman mauled him in a tight bear hug in the United Center hallway.
The freshman big man referenced "one big orange family" when talking about his team and Illinois fans. He has become like a favorite cousin to most who follow the team.
Bezhanishvili led the way for the Illini with 26 points on 12-of-15 shooting before fouling out late in regulation. He came out of the gates on a mission, scoring Illinois' first 14 points, and he created a highlight with a late steal that he took down the court for a layup.
"I got open, I wouldn't say easily, but the players fed me the ball," he said. "My coach told me: 'Just stay patient. You can do a lot more.' I was just playing basketball, to be honest."
Underwood said Bezhanishvili is "light years" from where he was in the season opener as he understands his positioning better and gets more comfortable on the court.
"He's come so far," Underwood said.
In the teams' previous meeting March 3, Underwood said Northwestern's Dererk Pardon "had his number" defensively. Bezhanishvili finished that game with 12 points on 2-of-6 shooting.
"His maturity has changed the most," Underwood said.
2. Players stepped up when they were needed.
When Bezhanishvili fouled out with 17 seconds left, he said he wasn't worried about the fate of the game. He said he saw "a look" in his teammates' eyes once the game headed to overtime at 61-61.
"I'm so confident in my teammates," he said. "I know my teammates are going to do their thing. As we saw, they did."
Trent Frazier became a much-needed sidekick to Bezhanishvili in the second half and overtime. He finished with 21 points in 41 minutes, making a go-ahead 3-pointer from the corner for a 68-66 lead with 3 minutes to go in overtime.
Despite struggling to score most of the night (3 of 10, eight points), freshman Ayo Dosunmu hit a 3-pointer after a block on the other end for a 71-66 lead with 2:12 left. He had been elbowed in the eye on the other end. "I couldn't see," he said.
And after missing what would have been a game-winning layup at the end of regulation, Andres Feliz converted with 1:05 left to put the game to bed.
"I looked at the guys and was like, 'Yeah, that's it,' " Bezhanishvili said.
3. The Illini kept fighting.
Illinois entered having lost five of its last six. After falling behind to the lowest seed in the tournament, missing a chance to finish off the game in regulation and having the best player of the game on the bench, the Illini didn't quit.
"That's what makes me happiest," Underwood said. "You could have rolled over."
He said he has challenged the players with a simple question -- "Where the dogs at?" -- to get them to focus on defensive toughness and determination.
"It's a competitive phrase I like to use," Underwood said. "I have a few others I can't repeat. It's to challenge the guys."
When the Wildcats locker room opened to the media Wednesday night, big men Barret Benson and Dererk Pardon were locked in a long, emotional hug.
"He's been the heart and soul of this program," Benson said. "You think you know what hard work is until you spend three years under Dererk Pardon. He's hurt and he's still showing up early to practice. He's banged up and I don't know how, but he's playing fantastic."
Pardon's NU career ended in the 74-69 overtime loss to Illinois. So did Vic Law's. He couldn't push off his right leg, so he sat out, hoping the Wildcats could extend the season and give him more time.
"Sorry I couldn't do it for them," said Law, almost too choked up to speak. "Sorry."
1. Northwestern needs to rebuild the roster.
Law and Pardon depart, as do Jordan Ash and Ryan Taylor, who missed all five of his 3s against Illinois.
Three-point specialist Aaron Falzon might return for a fifth season, saying he needs to talk with family members and coach Chris Collins before deciding. "It's wide open," he said. "I have no idea."
NU has a three-man incoming class with forward Robbie Beran -- the highest-rated recruit in school history -- point guard Daniel Buie and big man Jared Jones. The Wildcats will be active in the transfer and grad-transfer market, but Taylor's struggles are a reminder that quick fixes are rarely the answer.
2. The Wildcats need massive improvement from their returning players.
Much was expected from freshmen Pete Nance and Miller Kopp. Kopp has potential but shot 36.7 percent on the season. The 6-foot-10 Nance needs to rebuild his body after losing 25 pounds from mono. And what does it say about his confidence that while being guarded in the low post by the 6-2 Tyler Underwood, Nance passed up a shot?
Anthony Gaines showed his value Wednesday by finishing with nine rebounds and five steals, but he shot 2 of 8 and doesn't trust his stroke.
A.J. Turner believes in his -- "I think I'm a great shooter," he said after scoring 20 against the Illini -- but has to make strides in every area.
"I need to get stronger," the transfer from Boston College said. "It's definitely a more physical conference than the ACC."
Benson said he has "full confidence" in his game, but it didn't always appear that way. He shot 59.1 percent as a freshman and 39.3 percent as a junior.
3. Collins needs to rediscover what got his team to the dance in 2017.
He attributes the vast majority of this team's shortcomings to not having a true point guard after Jordan Lathon was denied admission, forcing wings Law and Turner to act as ballhandling guards.
"We have a really good football team," Collins said. "If two weeks before school you lose someone you thought was going to be your starting (quarterback) and two weeks into training camp your backup blows his knee out, now your running back has to play quarterback and your wide receiver has to play running back and your tight end has to play wide receiver. You get what I'm saying. That's what we had to do all year."
Other teams overcome injuries or absences caused by off-the-court issues. Northwestern could not.
Buie received no other high-major offers and is ranked as the nation's 307th player in the 247Sports.com composite. Is he the answer to fix a broken offense?
"He's good," Collins said. "I don't want to put too much on a freshman, but he does a lot of the stuff we lack right now. He's quick, can get in the lane, can score, shoot and get us in the pick-and-roll."
Northwestern is 28-35 since making the NCAA Tournament two years ago. Collins believes it's a blip, pointing to his playing days at Duke when the Blue Devils endured a 2-14 ACC season while Mike Krzyzewski was out. He also pointed to Purdue's rebuild under Matt Painter.
"We've done it before, and we're going to do it again," Collins said. "I promise you that -- we're going to do it again."
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