Two wounded animals took the court Sunday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena in an in-state Big Ten matchup pitting Northwestern against Illinois.
Out of one cage came the host Wildcats, who dropped a 57-56 heartbreaker at the buzzer to DePaul on Dec. 27 before losing their first three conference games by an average of 25 points.
Out of the other cage came the Fighting Illini, who cracked the polls at No. 23 last week and promptly fell apart in a 95-70 loss at Wisconsin.
Something had to give and, on this night in front of a mixed crowd in Evanston, it was Illinois' offense.
In an unsightly game on both sides, Illini shot 19 percent (6-for-31) from the field in the first half and 28 percent (18-for-64) overall in a 49-43 loss to NU.
"I thought we were barely aggressive enough, I thought we were way too tentative offensively, and we're going to have to figure that out pretty quickly," Illinois coach John Groce said. "I feel like it's been that way now for a couple games. I do think they defended well so I certainly think it's blend there of them defending well and us not being nearly aggressive.
"I thought we did have some shots, especially in the first half. We missed three tip dunks, we missed a couple layups and you've got to convert some of those, especially in this league."
Playing without point guard Dave Sobolewski, who sustained a concussion in practice on Saturday, Northwestern also plodded along on offense but managed to build a 22-15 lead at the break and build it to 25-15 early in the second half.
Even with Rayvonte Rice, who came in as the Big Ten's leading scoring at 18.8 points per game, limited to 8 points on 2 of 11 shooting, the Illini (13-4 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten) managed to rally back and tie the game at 34 with 7:05 to play.
And just when it looked like rookie Wildcats coach Chris Collins was going to have to wait for his first conference win, sophomore guard Tre Demps heated up with three 3-pointers in a three-minute stretch to seal the win.
"I've been in the gym all day for the last few days," said Demps, who missed his first three shots from 3-point range. "I was waiting for a good look and when I hit the first one, I got a good rhythm going. The main thing was my teammates believed in me. After halftime they said, 'Keep shooting; you're taking great shots.' When you hear that, it kind of gives you confidence."
Collins said confidence in himself never wavered during a difficult stretch, but he was pumped up after NU (8-9, 1-3) held on to beat Illinois. So was his father Doug, who loudly applauded when his son strolled into the NU Club to meet the press.
"It was a special night for us," Collins said. "Getting my first Big Ten win, I never thought my team would win with 49 points. I always liked to have 49 myself when I played. I'm just so proud of how hard our guys played win or lose, and we won."