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.
Teammates Zach Lofton and Daishon Knight led a balanced attack with 15 points apiece while John Jones had 11, Reggie Lynch added 10 and Michael Middlebrooks collected 11 rebounds.
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.
Cobb closed with 19 points, and Drew Crawford had 13 while Tre Demps added 12.
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.