Northwestern sophomore guard Boo Buie drives the point in the Jan. 8 game against Illinois. Buie had a fantastic night against Penn State Saturday night with 18 points, but despite this effort, the 'Cats were unable to finish the fight, dropping the game 81-78. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

This was the one. Northwestern men’s basketball (6-8, 3-7 B1G) was firing on all cylinders. The shots from three were landing. Everyone was nabbing rebounds. No one was backing down from the challenge. For a team that had dropped its two previous matchups by a combined 39 points, the ’Cats looked like a squad that could match an opponent, find themselves shots, and finally win a game again.

They accomplished two of the three Saturday night. Can you guess which one they didn’t?

The Wildcats closely dropped their matchup against Penn State (5-6, 2-5 B1G) Saturday night, losing 81-78. Despite scoring their highest point total since their big win over Michigan State, the ’Cats were not able to lock down the Nittany Lions in critical moments, ultimately dooming them to a close loss in a winnable game.

“Obviously, it's a very disappointing loss,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said. “I really feel for our guys tonight, I thought our effort was very good … we have a lot of opportunities. We let one slip away tonight, no question about it. But we have a number of opportunities, starting next Sunday with Rutgers, to work ourselves back in there. And that's what we plan to do.”

Penn State was led in their victorious effort by junior guard Izaiah Brockington, who led all scorers with 21 points, and junior guard Myreon Jones, who put up a nice stat line of 15 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals.

Despite the loss, the ’Cats had several fantastic individual performances that brought them within reach, including three starters scoring more than 17 points: junior guard Miller Kopp with 19, sophomore guard Boo Buie with 18 and junior forward Pete Nance with 17. Nance also led the ’Cats with seven rebounds, in addition to notching two assists and a steal. Sophomore center Ryan Young also came off the bench to score 10 points of his own.

“I thought [Buie] had a spark tonight,” Collins said postgame. “I thought he shot the ball with confidence, I thought he played with pace … he didn't let it snowball, and now he's kind of back to playing how we want him to play … he's getting better, and Pete's getting better and Robbie's getting better.”

The game, as the final score suggests, was never a one-sided affair. Each team traded baskets and blows to start the game, and neither squad could pull away with a large lead early. Through this stretch, the ’Cats saw the re-emergence of Buie, who, after a tough scoring slump over five games earlier this season, was making absolutely beautiful circus shots.

Despite these efforts, Northwestern found themselves in old habits again, and let the Nittany Lions run off with larger leads as time went on. A key point at this time for the ’Cats’ was their inability to capitalize off Penn State turnovers, as although the Happy Valley team allowed as many as 12 in the first half, Northwestern simply could not score off them, allowing Penn State to jump out on top 38-33 in the first half.

It wasn’t looking good for the ’Cats early in the second half, as Penn State built their lead to nine with 17 minutes to play. Unlike previous games, however, Northwestern showed complete resilience and ability to compete, and went on a 10-0 run to recapture the lead. The run was marked with the continuing dominance of Boo Buie from downtown, and fantastic dunks from Kopp and junior forward Robbie Beran to boot.

From there, it became a 200 foot game of tic-tac-toe. Penn State ran off on an 8-0 run. Then the teams traded layups and free throws. Then Northwestern got fancy with their ball movement and hit two straight three-pointers. For a moment, it almost looked like the ’Cats would be able to fully capitalize on their lead and finish strong.

Unfortunately, the ’Cats fell back into old habits once more, and allowed the Nittany Lions to go on a 10-0 run in crunch time. Northwestern clawed back in the final minute, but despite a last-second opportunity to tie the game at 81 by sophomore guard Chase Audige, the ball went awry, and the Wildcats dropped their seventh straight matchup.

“We're definitely still learning how to win,” Collins said. “I'm really proud of how this group is growing. They have great attitudes, they're coming every day, they really want to win, they want to do this. And it's hard, I mean, this is the best conference in basketball. So, if you win a game in this league, you've done some really well. We’ve got three of them right now, and we’ve got to work hard to get our fourth and the next one.”

Several factors undermined the ’Cats’ loss, but the term that could be best used to sum it up was “failure to lockdown.” Northwestern allowed multiple long-winded scoring runs for Penn State throughout the game, in addition to committing several more fouls than their opponent (Penn State took 26 free throws, while the ’Cats took 12). Despite their best shooting performance of the year (49% from the field with 11 three-pointers) Northwestern was doomed due to their defense. When asked about it, Collins said it was nothing mental, just a simple failure to execute:

“I think our guys are in a good mental space,” Collins said. “It's an execution thing. Our guys are playing really hard … we did some good things, we made shots tonight… 78 points should be good enough to win in this conference… A lot of it is, to me, 10 to 12 of those points that we just gave up: whether it's a loose ball, or we had a play after a free throw, we had miscommunication on who was guarding who, and they throw ahead, and … just things like that, and they add up in the course of the game. Now all of a sudden, you give up 10 to 12 of those kinds of points; instead of giving up 70 points, you give up 80 points.”

Now at the unofficial halfway point of the season, Northwestern will now return to Evanston and take eight days off from playing games. After a week of recuperation and practice, the ’Cats will hope their fresh legs will stop the skid, and maybe gain one more Big Ten win. Their first opportunity will be Sunday, Jan. 31 at home against Rutgers, a team who's been dealing with a skid of their own.

Let’s hope they can complete the checklist next time.

Regroup. Recover. Refresh. Restart. Photo courtesy of Northwestern Athletics