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Northwestern basketball adds to No. 23 Illini misery in 68-54 win

Illinois guard BrandPaul right tries move past Northwestern forward Jared Swopshire (12) during first half an NCAA college basketball game

Illinois guard Brandon Paul, right, tries to move past Northwestern forward Jared Swopshire (12) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game on Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Darrell Hoemann)

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Updated: January 17, 2013 10:43PM

CHAMPAIGN — Coach John Groce didn’t want to hear about adversity robbing his fragile team of its confidence.

‘‘Stuff happens,’’ he said this week. ‘‘Deal with it.’’

It kept happening Thursday. Northwestern outplayed a fast-sinking No. 23 Illinois to post a 68-54 victory.

‘‘Needless to way, it’s a very good win for us,’’ NU coach Bill Carmody said. ‘‘I thought we played one of our better games this year. You have to in order to beat these guys here. Our defense was pretty solid, and we made shots.’’

The soon-to-be-unranked Illini (14-5, 1-4 Big Ten), who looked like they were going to be better than this during their 13-1 nonconference start, are looking confused, frustrated — and fragile.

‘‘The bottom line for us is, we’re not playing very good,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We have to play better; we have to coach better. Everybody has to pick it up. That’s just the way it is. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you.’’

Confidence sure seems to be the issue for a team that’s trying so hard it’s grimacing.

Meanwhile, NU (11-7, 2-3), which was supposed to be in trouble when it lost star Drew Crawford to a season-ending injury, sure looked like a team that’s going to win some games. But that just might have been a product of Illinois’ struggles.

‘‘The first 10 minutes, they were a juggernaut,’’ Groce said of the 25-12 early lead NU opened. ‘‘We weren’t as locked in as we needed to be. And they make you pay. You get smacked in the mouth, and you start scrambling, trying to make plays that just aren’t there.’’

Reggie Hearn (20 points) led the Cats. Brandon Paul had 21 for Illinois, but he also had five of Illinois’ 18 turnovers.

The Wildcats looked awfully sharp while building a 36-21 halftime lead that left some Illini fans booing their heroes.

Illinois came out fighting at the start of the second half. When it closed to 38-28, sparked by senior Sam McLaurin, a restless Assembly Hall crowd got into the game. McLaurin made his first career start, in place of Tyler Griffey, who came off the bench with a solid effort.

But NU kept making shots. The Wildcats shot 54 percent, including 71 percent (5-for-7) on three-pointers, in building their first-half lead against an increasingly porous Illinois defense. NU finished up at 47 percent from the field and 53 percent from three-point range.

And Illinois kept missing shots. A team that was averaging 10 three-pointers a game earlier this season went 3-for-20 (15 percent) from beyond the arc and 19-for-49 overall (39 percent).

NU, which has adapted to the loss of Crawford by running more of the back-cut stuff Carmody brought from Princeton, didn’t always execute. But it looked like it knew what it wanted to do.

The Illini, on the other hand, often were hurtling themselves around in a frantic, desperate way, as if they intended to will the ball into the basket.

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