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Moment arrives for Chris Collins at Northwestern

1st-year coach enjoys 1st Big Ten victory as Wildcats beat ranked rival

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

11:19 PM CST, January 12, 2014

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This was the moment Chris Collins waited all those years as a career assistant coach to savor.

This was the satisfaction he waited so long to experience for himself one day.

That day finally came Sunday when Northwestern hung on desperately to beat No. 23 Illinois 49-43 at Welsh-Ryan Arena, an occasion Collins celebrated by pointing to his family in the stands and hugging anything that moved as time expired.

This was a college basketball team, Collins' basketball team, taking on the personality of its charismatic coach and playing inspired enough to overcome a superior opponent with eight scholarship players.

This was Collins, a 39-year-old head coach for the first time after 13 seasons as an assistant on the Duke bench, getting the Big Ten's attention.

One fist pump at a time, Collins keeps changing the basketball culture at Northwestern.

"It was big for our program, we're in Year One,'' Collins said. "Anytime you can beat a Top 25 team. … It's one of those things you'll look back on. (But) I don't want this to be about me. I wasn't the guy out there.''

Those guys were Northwestern players in case nobody recognized them in apparel that was as ugly as the game's shooting.

Somebody at Under Armour had the bright idea to let the Wildcats design the uniforms they wore against their in-state rivals. So buzzwords ("Family") busily surrounded school logos, personal symbols and Chicago landmarks on every gray pair of Northwestern pajama bottoms, er, shorts. If clothes indeed make the man, the Wildcats should have taken the court a cluttered, confusing mess.

Instead, they fashioned their Sunday best no matter what they were wearing.

"Getting my first Big Ten win, I never thought my team would get 49 points,'' Collins kidded.

His well-designed game plan suggested otherwise. Controlling the tempo from the sidelines like a conductor at a symphony, Collins gestured every time a Northwestern guard dribbled faster down the court than he wanted. He knew there was one way the Wildcats would upset Illinois, and it wasn't by being in a hurry. If Collins were any more hands-on, his fingerprints would be on JerShon Cobb's shoulders.

"I didn't feel like we were going to win a track meet (and) we should never rest on defense,'' Collins said. "I said we can be tired tomorrow. We can't be tired tonight.''

As much as Northwestern's indefatigable defense contributed, Illinois deserves its share of credit — or blame — for keeping the score so low. The most telling sign: Illini leading scorer Rayvonte Rice didn't make his first field goal until 8 minutes, 39 seconds remained and finished with eight points on 2-of-11 shooting.

Illinois lost by 25 to Wisconsin four days earlier, but this felt worse. This was a loss to an unranked, overmatched team that simply arrived with more intensity. This was the kind of letdown teams regret on Selection Sunday.

The Illini selected shots in the first half as if they thought the shaded purple area on Northwestern's home court was off limits, consistently chucking shots outside it — and missing. When coach John Groce called the early offensive performance "anemic,'' nobody argued. Illinois improved after halftime but still made only 28 percent of their field-goal attempts and 4 of 19 3-pointers overall but didn't discriminate. They missed 3s, floaters, layups, tip-ins and dunks. They shot like they were distracted by Northwestern's uniforms.

"We had a variety,'' Groce said with a strained laugh.

After the Illini missed their first 11 3-point shots, Jon Ekey pulled up on a fast break from behind the arc and it clanked off the back of the rim. They introduced Ekey as "a 6-foot-7 graduate student.'' A study in patience, he isn't. But then that reflected how poorly Illinois made decisions with the ball until Tracy Abrams hit a 3 with 12:55 to start an Illini rally.

Somehow, Northwestern withstood every late charge by showing the resolve Collins brought to the program.

Yes, Tre Demps can start going by "Trey" after hitting three clutch 3-pointers late in the second half after Illinois threatened. But anybody looking for an example of the toughness Collins wants out of the Wildcats found it in a first-half sequence involving Sanjay Lumpkin.

Lumpkin left the game briefly after chipping a front tooth. Minutes later, Lumpkin not only returned but took a charge that brought many in the crowd to their feet. The only unimpressed people in the arena were hockey players.

"I love Sanjay,'' Collins said.

But the lasting image of Northwestern's metamorphosis came with 55.9 seconds left after Illinois pulled within 45-40 and center Alex Olah, the game's unsung hero, drew a charging foul on Joseph Bertrand.

"Our guys played with incredible spirit and energy,'' Collins said.

At Northwestern, they learn quickly.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh