Thompson keys Wildcats' upset of Illini

EVANSTON, Ill. – Northwestern senior Michael Thompson’s first 3-pointer from the left wing missed, bouncing off the rim and into the hands of teammate John Shurna.

Thompson ran to his left to find open space again. Shurna saw Thompson and quickly hit him with the ball. Without hesitation from the left corner, Thompson elevated and shot again. This time, the ball fell through the net, extending Northwestern’s lead to six late in the second half and bringing Welsh-Ryan Arena to its loudest as fans began to realize an upset of Illinois was within their grasp on Saturday.

Across from Thompson and a few rows up on the other side of the arena, Thompson’s mother Gina, wearing a No. 22 Northwestern jersey just like her son, nearly lost herself in the moment. She had seen Michael do plenty in his career, but this was something special.

“That I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, he wants this. He wants this win,” Gina said.

For the final six minutes and 11 seconds of Saturday’s game, Thompson played as if his season was on the line, which it was in a way. Lacking a signature win through Northwestern’s first 21 games, still clinging to NCAA tournament hopes and facing in-state rival Illinois for possibly the final time, Thompson took it upon himself to make sure the Wildcats prevailed before a national television audience on Saturday afternoon.

Thompson began his superhero ways just when Illinois completely erased a 12-point lead and tied the game at 53-53 with 6:39 remaining. The Wildcats appeared on the verge of seeing another close game go their opponents’ way. Northwestern had battled within a few baskets of Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue, but each time had fallen short.

Thompson wasn’t going to let that occur against Illinois. With 6:11 left, Thompson got the ball on the right wing, leaped, released the ball, kept his right hand dangling in the air as his feet landed and the ball swished through the net. With his right hand still hanging, Thompson took a moment to stare into Northwestern’s student section before returning on defense.

Gina loved every second of it. Thompson was doing exactly what she had been pleading for him to do.

“I’ve told him shoot the ball more, and he’ll tell me, ‘OK, OK,’” Gina said. “It’s almost like I was putting pressure on him, so I don’t say anything anymore. I don’t say anything, just go out there and play. I was happy to see him shooting. I really was. Not all of them are going to go in, but at least you’re trying and you got a good look.”

At 3:41, he sank the aforementioned, game-changing 3-pointer. At 2:18, he drained another 3 to put Northwestern ahead by seven. With 49 seconds remaining, he made two free throws to keep his team up by six.

“It’s huge, it’s huge,” Northwestern sophomore Drew Crawford said of Thompson’s shots. “He did it last week too against Ohio State. He brought us back into that game, and he was huge down the stretch tonight, too. It really gets us going as a team. It gets the crowd going and really energizes because he’s our leader. When he’s knocking down shots, we’re playing well.”

When it was finally over and Northwestern had pulled off the 71-70 upset, Thompson had scored 11 of the Wildcats’ 17 points and made three 3-pointers in the final 6:11. He finished with a game-high 22 points and added three rebounds, three assists, and two steals while playing the full 40 minutes.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber found plenty of faults in his own struggling team, but he couldn’t ignore what Thompson had done.

“You got to give a lot of credit to Northwestern,” Weber said. “They really executed down the stretch and made big shots. I thought Juice Michael Thompson was very special, played like a senior, played very determined, wanting to win a game at home.”

Thompson, himself, downplayed his whole part in the win. He wasn’t about to take any individual credit. This was a team win in his eyes.

“Illinois went on a 12-0 run, and as a team, I think we did a good job of keeping our composure and staying with the offense, just staying aggressive on the defensive end,” said Thompson, who will celebrate his 22nd birthday on Wednesday. “I was just on the receiving end of some good passes, and I made some shots.”

Gina knew the truth.

“To beat them because they’re so way up here [raising her hand to her head] with everything, coach and recruits,” Gina said. “For us to beat them, that’s major, that’s major.

“It means a lot to him. I know it does.”