If you think you’ve seen it all, then you clearly haven’t watched Northwestern men’s basketball.
In their last game, the Wildcats totaled 87 points against #16 Ohio State (10-4, 4-2 B1G) with three players shooting 20 points or more. They lost that game. The number 87 seems to have cursed properties because Northwestern (8-6, 1-4 B1G) fell 94-87 to the Maryland Terrapins (9-7, 1-4 B1G) in a double overtime thriller.
“I'm really heartbroken for our guys tonight,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said postgame. “We've got to come back tomorrow and keep fighting until they tell us not to fight anymore. I think you saw that in our guys. We just have to play a little better. I thought we did some good things overall, and there's a lot of things to improve on, but we just have to play a little bit better if we want to win.”
It is hard to win games when you do not stop the opposition’s best player. Last game it was the Buckeyes’ EJ Liddell. This time it was senior Terrapin guard Eric Ayala. He scored a team-leading 26 points and notched the first double-double of his career with 11 rebounds. Four Maryland players scored at least 17 points in a game that turned into a shootout after a slow start.
Leading the way for the Wildcats was top scorer Pete Nance. The senior forward recorded a double-double of his own with a game-leading – as well as new career-high – 28 points and 14 rebounds for the Wildcats. He did all of this despite rolling his ankle in the final minutes of play. It was Nance who knocked down three late, second-half three-pointers and the game-tying free throw with 11 seconds of regulation remaining.
Down 72-66 with 30 seconds remaining in the second half, the ’Cats looked cooked. Then things got weird. Cardiac ’Cats weird.
A quick Nance three and a kicked ball Maryland turnover, both courtesy of full-court presses, kick-started the run. Chaos ensued as Maryland junior forward Donta Scott committed a technical foul that led to two Robbie Beran free throws. Beran, the junior forward, contributed to the big men domination with 17 of his own points before fouling out in the final seconds of the game. Nance tied the game at 72 with a foul shot of his own, and the Wildcats remained alive to fight it out in overtime.
Both teams gave it their all, but it was the ’Cats who ran out of gas first as Maryland outscored them 11-4 in the final overtime in a game that was tied at every other buzzer. Three Wildcats (Beran and guards Chase Audige, a junior; and Ryan Greer, a senior) and two Terps (Scott and freshman forward Julian Reese) fouled out in the hard-fought effort.
Defense and discipline, or a lack thereof, have plagued Northwestern in their losses this season. They could not stay out of foul trouble and were careless at times. For every good thing the team has done on offense, their mistakes continue to hold them back. This was understandable to a point when this was a young team, but these Wildcats are veterans.
“You’ve just gotta make the plays, right?” Collins said postgame. "You gotta get the stop, make the big shot, grab the loose ball, make the free throw, just all the little things along the way … you can practice those things, but there's something called doing those things under pressure. That's what you try to prepare for."
Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. While Northwestern can’t do either currently, they have shown they can score in the B1G with back-to-back 87 point efforts. Now they have to put together a defense that can actually win those games. They’ll have their next chance to do so in a rematch at Michigan State (14-2, 5-0 B1G) on Saturday, January 15.
“Really, in order for us to turn around mwe have to improve on the defensive end of the floor,” Collins said. “On the glass, and to eliminate the free throws. I mean, the offense is fine … we scored 87 our last two games, so we gotta find a way to stop people and do the dirty work and the toughness things in order to win these games.”
To become a tournament threat, you have to win a game first. Northwestern had better win one soon.