Henry makes one FT, then Leonard swats away last-second shot by Wildcats.

 

 Illinois freshman Myke Henry hasn't seen a shot he doesn't like, but he was probably a little nervous on the free-throw line with 6 seconds left and the game tied.

"As long as I hit the first one, I knew I was all right,'' said Henry, the Chicago Public League product who made one of two free throws, then watched sophomore center Meyers Leonard swat away a last-second shot from Northwestern's Drew Crawford in a 57-56 victory over the Wildcats in a Big Ten game before a crowd of 8,117 at Welsh-Ryan Arena Wednesday.

Playing without point guard Sam Maniscalco because of pain in his left ankle, the Illini overcame a dismal first half with a late spurt before halftime and better defense in the second half. Illinois coach Bruce Weber didn't expect Maniscalco to play against visiting Nebraska Saturday (noon, BTN) and hoped to get him back for the stretch run in conference play.

Ending a two-game losing streak here and a five-game slide in Chicagoland covered up any concerns, for the moment.

"It feels good to end (the streak) in Chicago for these juniors,'' said Illini freshman center Nnanna Egwu. "It's tough to lose all those games, especially because it's where most of us are from. Northwestern says it's Chicago's team. We have a piece of it, a share of it.''

Illinois improved to 13-3 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten after building a 55-47 lead with 1 minutes 44 seconds left, then holding Northwestern's rally.

"We've shown stretches against Missouri and other times where we can play with almost anyone in the country,'' said Leonard, who had 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks to lead the Illini. "There are other times when we struggle We're going to go through stretches like that.''

Playing in front of some basketball glitterati -- recruits Jabari Parker of Chiacgo Simeon and Tommy Hamilton Jr. of Chicago Whitney Young were here, along with former Illini coach Lou Henson -- the Illini couldn't have been much uglier in the first half. Not only were they two steps slow on defense, Illinois had no flow on offense. Most possessions ended in a one-on-one move.

If this was figure skating, the Illini wouldn't have survived the compulsories. If this was the Miss America pageant, Illinois would have been voted off before the swimsuit competition.

Assuredly, part of the problem came with Maniscalco on the bench in sweats, but Illinois still has trouble grasping the concepts. Illinois survived another close win, but the season gets tougher. Both of Illinois' conference wins came against teams expected to finish in the Big Ten's second division.

"We had a great finish to the first half, which allowed us to stay in the game,'' Weber said. "Then a great start in the second half. We haven't been good in either one of those spots for most of the season. We have to keep getting better and see if we can get a win against Nebraska.''

Trailing by 10 late in the first half, Illinois surged ahead on an 18-3 run and limited Northwestern to 11 points in the first 18 minutes in the second half.

Illini guard Joe Bertrand scored all of his 10 points in the second half and also grabbed eight rebounds. Guard Brandon Paul had 10 points and four assists but lost six turnovers. Egwu scored all of his nine points in the first half and produced good numbers in only 8 minutes played.

The Illini won the game with defense, limiting Northwestern to 36.4-percent shooting in the second half. 

"In the first half, I thought we had to take advantage,'' said Northwestern coach Bill Carmody. "We should have had a 12-point lead. In the second half, they clamped down on us. You have to give them credit on second-half defense.''

Northwestern forward John Shurna scored 20 points but had only three after halftime. Crawford finished with nine points on 3 of 12 shooting. The twosome, who rank 1-2 in Big Ten scoring, combined to average 36.5 points per game heading into it. Northwestern fell to 11-4, 1-2.

There was a sigh of relief from the Illini, but the pain in Maniscalco's ankle is concerning. 

The Illini might be planning to rest Maniscalco for two more games, then take nearly a week off during a bye weekend before facing the final 13 Big Ten games.

"I would doubt if he plays against Nebraska, to be honest,'' Weber said. "In the long run, we're hoping if we can give him some rest, we can make a run in the stretch of the Big Ten, maybe the last 12 or 13 games.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie@aol.com.

  Illinois report card Front court -- B- Center Meyers Leonard was "putzing around in the first half,'' coach Bruce Weber said, but he scored nine points after halftime and made the game-saving play. Back court -- C Essentially going with a four-guard lineup, the Illini struggled to defend Northwestern in the first half. Brandon Paul must take care of the ball. He's lost 20 in the last five games. Bench -- B If Nnanna Egwu can catch up to the pace of the game, he could be a difference-maker down the stretch. Overall -- C+ There was a nice comeback and played with fire. But sometimes when you play with fire, you can get burnt. The Illini were fortunate against the Wildcats.