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Chris Collins masterminds program-building victory for Northwestern

JerShCobb NikolCerinbask moment Northwestern’s first Big Ten victory. | Matt Marton/AP

JerShon Cobb and Nikola Cerina bask in the moment of Northwestern’s first Big Ten victory. | Matt Marton/AP

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Updated: February 14, 2014 6:30AM

Those who clung to the idea that Northwestern would be more competitive under Chris Collins’ predecessor, Bill Carmody, and his Princeton offense screamed the loudest about the Wildcats’ first three Big Ten games — all double-digit losses.

But on Sunday night, when the host Wildcats (8-9) beat No. 23 Illinois 49-43 in a game in which their first-year coach brought a flawless defensive game plan, Collins’ enthusiasm was heard the loudest.

“I’m just so proud of how hard our guys played — win or lose,” Collins said. “We won, but you guys could sense from them, just from the start of the game, we were so locked in defensively. Our guards were rebounding. Illinois is a really good team.”

Point guard Dave Sobolewski did not play because of a concussion he suffered in practice Saturday, so Northwestern had no full-time ball handlers on the court.

The obvious call would have been for the Illini (13-4) to apply high ball pressure. But they didn’t until the final two minutes, when they were chasing the game.

“We’re going to do what we do,” Illini coach John Groce said of his defense. “That’s what’s been good to us the bulk of the season. I thought [JerShon] Cobb had played some good minutes for them at the point recently, and Cobb got them off to a great start.”

But it was Northwestern’s willingness to adjust its defensive principles that won the game.

Illinois shot 19.4 percent in the first half and committed as many personal fouls — six — as it made field goals. Illinois finished shooting 28.1 percent from the field.

That Northwestern was able to stop the pick-and-roll center Nnanna Egwu runs with guards Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams was the defining element of its victory. Rice, Illinois leading scorer, was held to eight points. Egwu scored six.

“We changed a little bit of our coverages, especially on the side,” Collins said. “We wanted to keep it over there on the side. We did a really good job of that and they just put a lot of pressure on because they’ve got multiple ball handlers.”

Five players played at least 33 minutes for the Wildcats, who essentially went six deep.

It was a program-builder for Collins, who has been tasked with building it from the ground up.

But Sunday he deflected the attention to his players.

“When we end the season and I look back and can think about winning that first game here at home, I’ll feel great about it,” ­Collins said. “But I really want to celebrate it for my guys because I know how much they’ve been through.”


Twitter: @SethGruen

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