So what was the key for the Wildcats to fend off their hated rival for a victory?
"It's holding onto your guts a little bit, because you know they're coming after you," said coach Bill Carmody.
Winning on the road is no easy task. For a young Northwestern team, it was especially daunting. But everything seemed to go right on Thursday night in Champaign.
Following a miserable shooting night against Iowa on Sunday, Northwestern looked like a completely different team. The Wildcats connected on four consecutive three-pointers, propelling them to a double-digit margin in the first half.
The confidence was high for Northwestern after its strong beginning. It was critical to sustain it.
"We always talk about getting a great start," said senior guard Reggie Hearn, who tallied a team-high 20 points. "It's tough to play from behind, especially on the road."
Northwestern had a tremendous night on defense, and it stifled the Fighting Illini's struggling offense. Illinois hit on just 38.8 percent of its shots, but that included an ugly 3-of-20 from beyond the arc.
"The coaches put in a great game plan, defensively, and we just executed it," Hearn said.
Just twice—late in the second half—did Illinois cut Northwestern's lead into a single-digit margin. The Wildcats did not waver.
Key free throws helped seal the deal for Northwestern. On the game, it hit 26 of 31 from the charity stripe.
"We made foul shots," Carmody said. "It has not been a good year for us shooting foul shots.
Everything seemed different for Northwestern inside Assembly Hall. The Wildcats' struggling seniors recorded 44 total points and their defensive effort was stout from start to finish. It came in the first came following Carmody's challenge for an improved effort from the group.
"I thought they really came out tonight and played well," Carmody said.
Northwestern has seen great success on the road, with a 5-1 margin to its name. Thus far, the Wildcats have been road warriors.
"It's definitely a mindset," said senior forward Jared Swopshire, who added 12 points in the win. "We want to get road wins. Now, we just have to translate it to our home game."
In an attempt to bring positive vibes back to Evanston, the Wildcats will stay in a hotel Saturday night, in advance of a matchup with No. 2 Indiana at Welsh-Ryan Arena.