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Originally published Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 9:25 PM

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Northwestern extends Illinois' slump, 68-54

Midway through the second half Illinois coach John Groce's frustration boiled over and referee Jim Burr had heard enough

Associated Press

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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —

Midway through the second half Illinois coach John Groce's frustration boiled over and referee Jim Burr had heard enough

"That's enough!" Burr shouted before giving Groce a technical foul. "You've got to calm down!"

But Groce has good reason to be frustrated.

The 23rd-ranked Illini (14-5, 1-4 Big Ten) lost their third straight game Thursday night, 68-54 to Northwestern.

All three losses have been blowouts - including a 74-51 stunner last Saturday at Wisconsin - and Illinois has dropped five of seven since its 12-0 start.

And now the Illini find themselves near the bottom of the Big Ten standings, behind Northwestern (11-7, 2-3) and in front of only two teams still looking for their first conference win, Nebraska and Penn State.

"That's two games in a row I think we came out and let the opponent be the aggressor," Groce said, adding later, "They were a juggernaut."

Illinois' early success, including its offense, Groce said, was built on stingy defense that the Illini now can't seem to play.

"I think we're not getting as many in transition because our team has too many holes in it," he said. "Our defense has been atrocious."

Northwestern was coming off a blowout loss, too, 70-50 to Iowa. On Thursday the Wildcats used a barrage of 3-pointers early and 10 points in the first 10 minutes from Reggie Hearn to bounce back.

"I thought they really came out tonight and played well," Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said. "Hearn was very good early. ... If they make shots you're a good coach."

Hearn's hot start included two 3-pointers.

The second, buried with just over 10 minutes left in the first half, put the Wildcats up 21-12.

They were 8 of 15 from 3-point range for the game but hit five of them in the first half to build a 36-21 lead. And Northwestern made 26 of 31 free throws, many of them late with Illinois forced to foul.

The cold-shooting Illini closed within 48-39 on a free throw by Brandon Paul with 4:36 to play. Illinois would get no closer, watching the Wildcats make free throws that Carmody said were the difference down the stretch.

"I think that we were making some foul shots helped and it kept that distance for us," Carmody said.

Jared Swopshire had 12 points and six rebounds for Northwestern, while Alex Marcotullio scored 12 points and Dave Sobolewski added 10 before fouling out late.

Paul had 21 points for Illinois, which shot 38 percent from the field, including going 3 of 20 from 3-point range.

Illinois opened the second half with better defensive pressure, but with the cold shooting - the Illini opened the second half hitting 4 of 11 from the field and were just 1 of 6 from 3-point range - didn't make up any ground.

Marcotullio's 3-pointer with 12:53 left pushed Northwestern's lead to 45-30, the same 15-point margin they had at halftime.

Paul finally ended a scoreless run of just over 5 minutes for Illinois with a layup with 9:35 left to play, trimming the Wildcats' lead to 45-32.

"We got to do a better job of keeping our team on track and we got to execute better on the offensive end," Paul said.

Moments after Groce was assessed the technical, a member of the Orange Krush student section was escorted out of the Assembly Hall after being tossed by Burr.

Groce and the fans were on the officials much of the night for what they saw as missed calls, but Groce declined to discuss the officiating.

"I don't want to talk about it or get into it," he said.

From the opening moments, it was not the Illini's night, and there were any number of examples.

There was Nnanna Egwu's big block on Alex Olah's short jumper with 4:25 to play in the first half. With their team already down 30-17, the Illinois crowd seized on the moment, releasing a roar of collective relief. Before the noise had even faded, Olah grabbed the rebound and tucked it into the basket.

And there was the Illini's final first-half possession. Trailing 36-21, they had three chances to cut that lead and pocket something to build on in the final 20 minutes. But three chances yielded three misses, and the team trotted quietly off the court.

The problem is, it hasn't been Illinois' night in a couple of weeks.

Since they upset then-No. 8 Ohio State on Jan. 5, the Illini are 0-3. And there hasn't been a close game in the bunch, losing by 17 to Minnesota, a stunning 23 at Wisconsin and by 14 at home to Northwestern.

The Wildcats finished 15 of 51 (29.4 percent) from the field and 5 of 26 from 3-point range in the loss to Iowa.

On Thursday, they made up for it, shooting 47.2 percent from the field. Hearn was 4 of 7 - including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers - and 9 of 10 from the free throw line.

"It's a very good win for us, especially on the road," Carmody said. "I thought our defense was pretty solid and we made shots."

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/davidmercerap

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