It was only the first day of December, but Northwestern already had raised concerns about the probability of a repeat NCAA tournament appearance.
Come March, the Wildcats' 72-68 overtime victory on Friday night against rival Illinois may not be their saving grace. But a loss in the way-too-early Big Ten opener would have brought more damage to an already muddied resume.
"We viewed this game as a must-win," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. "We have not been at our best. We've struggled, especially in our three opportunities to get marquee wins. We knew with this being a home game, coming off how we played, we needed to step up and win this game tonight."
It was the What-If Classic at Allstate Arena.
Imagine if Northwestern (5-3) didn't have an NCAA tournament hangover. Imagine if Illinois (6-2) had remained undefeated heading into this game instead of losing at Wake Forest in its first true test of the year.
What would that atmosphere be like? Maybe it would lure a sellout — even at outdated Allstate Arena. There were just more than 10,000 in Rosemont on Friday.
"How many empty seats were here tonight?" Illinois coach Brad Underwood asked. "That's not acceptable. True rivalries, that's about passion. I love our fans. We have great fans. We recruit the same type of guys. Chris is a heck of a ball coach. ... Any great rivalry, I don't know if it has been, hasn't been? The Big Ten said we're going to play twice every year."
The game was not devoid of long-term importance for either team.
Illinois hasn't beaten a quality opponent — losing on the road to a below-average Wake Forest and now dropping its first conference test. They head into a dangerous Sunday contest against Maryland on a two-game skid.
"Tonight was a conference game," Underwood said. "We had to learn."
Northwestern desperately needed to get out of its funk after dropping three of its previous five games. All the luster and momentum from last season's historic tournament appearance seemed to have vanished.
While it wasn't a beauty — the teams combined for 36 turnovers and 51 fouls, and neither scored in the final 2 minutes, 47 seconds of regulation — it required some toughness and determination from the Wildcats.
Dererk Pardon blocked two Illinois shots in the final 45 seconds, including batting away a shot by Te'Jon Lucas with three seconds left in overtime. Isiah Brown hit both free throws with 2.1 seconds remaining for the crucial four-point cushion to seal the victory.
Northwestern's Vic Law and Illinois' Leron Black were each hit with technical fouls with 3:25 left in overtime as shoving ensued under the basket after Aaron Falzon's fifth foul. With less than two minutes to play in overtime, Law (16 points) became the third Wildcats player to foul out with the score tied 66-66.
Scottie Lindsey made two free throws for a70-68 Northwestern lead with under a minute on the clock. He bounced back from an 0-for-8 performance at Georgia Tech to score 22 points on 6 of 17 shooting.
Bryant McIntosh (14 points) drove for a possible game-winner but turned the ball over, forcing overtime with the teams tied 63-63.
The Wildcats ended regulation with four turnovers and no field goals in the final 3:08. McIntosh contributed six turnovers, while Falzon added five.
Northwestern needs momentum after digging an early hole, stacking losses to Creighton, Texas Tech and Georgia Tech. The overtime victory against Illinois helped, but the Wildcats will be playing under pressure during Big Ten season.
"The guys got a good taste (of how) things can change in a heartbeat of how you're viewed," Collins said. "After Georgia Tech game lot of analysts questioned our toughness and defense. The same guys lauding us before the season. I tell the guys, 'It's never as good as they build you up to be and never as bad as when they're piling on.' We've had to learn some hard lessons this season."