EVANSTON, Ill. -- Freshman Tony Wills hit two free throws with 5.9 seconds left as Illinois State held off a late Northwestern comeback to secure a 68-64 non-conference victory on Sunday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The Redbirds (1-2) snapped a two-game losing streak and won for the third time in the five meetings with the Wildcats.
Northwestern (1-2) rallied from a 19-point second half deficit and trailed 66-64 after JerShon Cobb's jumper with 8.2 seconds to play. But Wills locked down the win seconds later with his free throws.
The Redbirds overcame a sluggish start and took a lead for good in the game's ninth minute.
Northwestern opened an early 8-3 lead while Illinois State hit just one of its first nine field goals. The Wildcats then missed seven straight shots while the Redbirds sprinted to an 15-8 lead by the 8:06 mark after back-to-back Knight layups, a Lynch dunk and another a fast break jam by Middlebrooks.
The Redbirds later used a 9-0 run to open a 31-17 lead with 4:04 showing on the way to a 40-22 halftime edge. Lofton had 12 first-half points on 3-of-6 shooting from the arc. Northwestern missed all seven 3-point tries.
The Wildcats opened the second half with six unanswered points, including a Dave Sobolewski 3-pointer that cut the deficit to 12.
The Redbirds replied with seven straight points, including a Lofton 3-pointer for a 47-28 lead with 16:04 remaining.
Another Northwestern surge cut the Illinois State lead to single digits at 53-44 when Sobolewski drove uncontested for a layup with 10 minutes left.
The Wildcats trailed 63-56 with 2:28 to play, hit 4-of-6 free throws over the next two minutes and had two Cobb baskets.
Northwestern, under first-year coach Chris Collins, has four starters back from a team that went 13-19 under former coach Bill Carmody. Second-year Redbirds coach Dan Muller opened the season with just two returnees, no seniors and nine players with no Division I experience.
Chris Collins is the son of Redbirds legend Doug Collins, Illinois State's all-time leading scorer (2,240 points) who later went on to a lengthy NBA career as a player and coach.
Both teams resume play Wednesday with Northwestern at Illinois-Chicago while Illinois State hosts Manhattan.