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Illinois extends winning streak to four with 62-41 rout of Northwestern

Illinois' D.J. Richardsshoots against Northwestern's Dave Sobolewski during first half an NCAA college basketball game EvanstIll. Sunday Feb. 17 2013.

Illinois' D.J. Richardson shoots against Northwestern's Dave Sobolewski during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Evanston, Ill., Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)I

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Updated: March 19, 2013 6:31AM

It’s hard to say which is more impressive: Illinois’ four-game winning streak or the way it has been playing during the streak.

The Illini took care of business against Northwestern 62-41 on Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena with an unblinking effort. And if the game lacked offensive fireworks, that might be a positive for Illinois (19-8, 6-7 Big Ten).

On a night when the Illini made only 11 of 30 shots in the first half, they won by holding the injury-depleted Wildcats (13-13, 4-9) to 12-for-48 shooting overall and 5-for-27 from three-point range. Illinois also won the turnover battle 14-9 and outrebounded NU 39-33. Those stats are encouraging for the Illini, who tend to be streaky on offense.

‘‘I’m really proud of our guys for the way we defended,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. ‘‘When we play well, it really starts with defense. We were really locked in. The guys played exceptionally hard, and we were unselfish at both ends.’’

After a 2-7 start in Big Ten play, the Illini can get back to .500 in the conference if they defeat Penn State on Thursday in Champaign. The Nittany Lions are winless in the Big Ten.

‘‘That’s pretty cool,’’ Illinois guard Tracy Abrams said. ‘‘We just have to stay level, stay at the same pace all the time.’’

Only a late burst helped the Wildcats, who trailed 45-15 with 131/2 minutes left, avoid scoring their fewest points under coach Bill Carmody. And a large Illini Nation contingent reveled in Illinois’ effort.

‘‘It was crazy,’’ Abrams said. ‘‘I thought we had more orange in here than purple. It was like a home game for us.’’

D.J. Richardson led the Illini with 18 points, which is what he has
averaged during the winning streak.

‘‘It feels great,’’ Richardson said. ‘‘A four-game winning streak. We aren’t finished yet. We’re just trying to keep it going. It’s fun winning; it hurts losing. We want to keep feeling good.’’

Abrams (13 points) and Brandon Paul (eight points, six rebounds, five assists) also had productive nights.

‘‘D.J. is playing at a really high level right now at both ends,’’ Groce said. ‘‘We got contributions from a lot of people. Abrams has been off the charts. And Brandon Paul had one of the best games he’s had all season [despite] scoring eight points. That was as good as he’s
defended all year.’’

Reggie Hearn led injury-plagued NU with 11 points.

‘‘[Illinois] seemed to have a little more pep in their step,’’ Carmody said. ‘‘We couldn’t get much going. They guarded well, and when we’re not scoring, it makes it tough on our defense.’’

Looking very focused on defense, the Illini led 29-15 at the half. After starting the game with a 7-0 run,
Illinois ended the first half with a 10-0 burst that featured three-pointers by Abrams and Richardson.

The Illini then scored the first 16 points of the second half, extending their run to 26-0 and opening their 45-15 lead.

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