Rallying back from a surprising loss against Radford, Northwestern (2-2) beat the Norfolk State Spartans (3-3) 70-59 on Friday at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats came back from a 10-point deficit following the lead of first-year center Ryan Young (19 pts, 12 reb) and sophomore forward Pete Nance (17 pts, 6 reb).
The ’Cats started the game struggling on both ends of the floor. Norfolk State’s guards were not afraid to shoot threes against a zone defense — and they made their first three attempts. Northwestern’s offense seemed hectic with a lot of missed shots. At one point, their field goal percentage was a shocking 17%. With only seven minutes in the game, Norfolk State was already leading by 10 points and another disappointing night seemed to be just around the corner for Northwestern's diehards.
Thankfully, the Wildcats bounced back after a timeout by Coach Collins. Defense led the way, as the team finally realized that zone was not going to serve them well and switched to man-to-man. The new plan made the Spartans take bad shots and forced turnovers, which helped Northwestern to pick up the pace and attack in transition.
Collins was pleased with his young players’ response after being down 10 early in the game while struggling offensively. “I thought our attitudes were good,” he said. “I felt the energy of our bench.”
But energy doesn’t necessarily mean buckets. Since the timeout, Northwestern scored nine straight points from the free throw line thanks to the early foul trouble of Norfolk, but they continue to shoot poorly. It wasn’t until 7:05 left in the half that Northwestern made the first field goal in seven minutes to take back the lead.
After Nance made his third three at the buzzer, Northwestern finished the half with a 29-7 run and was up 37-25. With a 32% shooting percentage on the floor (but they did shoot 33% from beyond the arc), the 16 free throws made was no doubt a huge part of their success.
Coming out of the locker room, Northwestern’s early effort was enough to help them keep the lead. Comparing to the start of the first half, they started to pass the ball with much more patience, therefore creating better shots.
Young and graduate guard Pat Spencer (1 pt, 9 reb, 5 ast) were the highlights of Northwestern’s offense. Despite struggling to score himself, Spencer made a handful of nice assists to create opportunities for his teammates, especially Young.
The big man dominated the paint in the second half, scoring 10 points in addition to grabbing 10 rebounds (seven of those were on the offensive side.) He also made 11 out of his 12 free throw attempts in the game, which he credited to the time he had spent with all of the coaches in the past week.
“We tend to forget he’s a freshman,” Collins about Young after the game. “He's so relentless on the offensive boards, you know, even if he misses his own shot, he follows it in...And I just thought he was an anchor for us defensively too.”
Norfolk did try to fight back. After Nance scored his 17th point of the game to give Northwestern a 19-point lead with nine minutes left, the Spartans tested Northwestern’s defense by suddenly picking up the pace while changing to a full court defense.
For awhile, the ’Cats was not able to stop Devonte Carter, who repeatedly attacked the paint and got himself on the free throw line. The full court zone broke the rhythm of Northwestern’s offense as well. The Spartans outscored the ’Cats 17-9 in the last seven minutes of the game. Luckily, the 19-point deficit was ultimately too much for Norfolk to comeback from.
Despite the win, the inconsistency is alarming, especially because they did the same thing against Providence and almost lost the game. As a young team, the lack of experience is probably the key reason.
“Are there gonna be nights we still look like we're playing six first-year guys? Probably.” Collins didn’t shy away from his team’s flaws. “We've learned, you know, that we can be pretty good. And I think we've learned that we can look bad.”
Young recognizes the fact as well. “We don't have a lot of guys with experience out there and that's not an excuse for us. But when it comes down to it, it's something that comes with those ups and downs as an experience,” he said. “And I think it's important for us to just take it game by game.”
The ’Cats will take on their next opponent, Bradley, in Fort Myers, Florida on Monday. If they manage to beat the team that qualified for March Madness last year, Northwestern will compete against the winner of Kansas State and Pittsburgh on Wednesday for a shot at the Fort Myers Tip-Off championship.