Middle man

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The best-of-2009 and best-of-the-decade lists had been published long before Wednesday evening's tipoff between Illinois and Northwestern.

People tend to try to get those out in the early-to-mid days of December.

That's a shame. The Illini's 89-83 overtime win over the Wildcats was a classic and could be included on anyone's list.

From the start, it felt as though it was going to be that kind of night.

Northwestern flew out of the gate nailing everything from deep. The Wildcats connected on 3-pointers on four of their first five possessions and went up 12-4 before Illinois' fans could even get comfortable in their seats.

"They were on fire at the beginning," said Illinois junior Bill Cole, a backup who would provide late heroics by sinking a free throw to put Illinois up by four with 23 seconds left. "Every guy was hitting 3s. Every guy was tough to guard."

No player was more difficult to guard than Illinois center Mike Tisdale, though. After Northwestern took its early lead, Illinois answered right back with what would be its constant answer all night -- Tisdale's interior play.

It did take Illinois a minute to get it to him. On Illinois' first possession, it tossed the ball around the perimeter while Illini coach Bruce Weber and assistant coach Jay Price stood and yelled from across the floor to throw the ball inside to Tisdale. The possession ended with an air ball. When Illinois' players returned to their end of the court, Weber and Price got their message across, and Tisdale became the main target the rest of the night.

Answering the critics who have called him soft, the 7-foot-1 Tisdale pounded Northwestern's smaller players with an array of inside moves and scored a career-high 31 points.

"If 31's soft, I guess there's not much you can do about it," Tisdale joked. "We're just going to keep playing our game. I'm not going to worry about people calling me soft or Mike Davis soft.

"I love it to be honest. Whenever I get a challenge, it's fun to shut people down. Hopefully, it will continue."

The crowd of 16,618 let Tisdale know how much it appreciated him when he picked up his fifth foul with 2:27 remaining in overtime. The crowd stood and applauded as he walked to the bench.

As for Davis, Illinois' other "soft" forward, he did his own silencing. He also used his size advantage against Northwestern and dropped in 20 points and grabbed 17 rebounds.

But while the Illini did all their damage inside, Northwestern kept putting up 3 after 3 after 3. Jeremy Nash connected on a career-high five 3-pointers. John Shurna hit four of them as he finished with 27 points. Freshman Alex Marcotullio came off the bench and made four 3s. The Wildcats ended up making 16 altogether, an Assembly Hall record for an opponent.

The 3-pointers were nice and all, but Northwestern coach Bill Carmody was most surprised by the 84 shots his team took and its three turnovers.

"I haven't been a part of a game, and I think I've been coaching for a bunch of years, to have a team take 84 shots with only three turnovers," Carmody said. "That's pretty amazing."

Amazing for Weber was that the Illini didn't crumble when they faced adversity on Wednesday. In their previous two games, they fell apart when Georgia and Missouri challenged them. Against Northwestern, they rallied when down at the start. They then found a way to come back when the Wildcats went ahead 47-37 in the second half. And they didn't put their heads down after blowing a late lead and allowing Northwestern to force overtime.

"We could have quit," Weber said. "There's no doubt. The one thing we have been is we are a good team when things are going good, and we haven't been the best team when things are going bad. When things went bad tonight, we didn't quit. We battled, and we had some guys step up and make some plays."

Northwestern wasn't taking any moral victories home with it, either. The Wildcats may be without star forward Kevin Coble for the season, and they may still have their doubters, but they do truthfully believe that they can make a run in the Big Ten and earn that elusive NCAA tournament bid.

"Everyone's disappointed," Wildcats guard Michael Thompson said. "We don't feel good about this at all. We felt this is a game we should have won."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.