Let’s get something out of the way: Northwestern (4-1, 1-0 B1G) is not known for their men’s basketball. Whether it be making only one tournament berth after 78 years or their constant difficulties to close tight games, it seems that there is a pessimistic vibe around Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the ’Cats haven’t knocked off a top-5 team since 1979.
That is, until Sunday night.
Northwestern pulled off a stunning upset of No. 4 MSU (6-1, 0-1 B1G) on Sunday, beating the Spartans handily 79-65. The ’Cats, who choked away a double-digit lead to Pittsburgh 10 days ago, took a lead early in the first half and never looked back, going tit-for-tat with the Spartans and dominating them throughout the game.
“Certainly really proud of our guys tonight,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said postgame. “I'm just really proud of their resolve. You come out against a terrific team like Michigan State, and you put it together and they see that they can do it. It's one thing to talk about it, you can practice it ... but until you go out there and do it when the lights are on, when it matters most, then that's when you break through.”
The ’Cats were led by fantastic performances by sophomore guard Boo Buie and junior forward Pete Nance. Buie set a new career high with 30 points scored, going 5-for-6 from downtown and 7-for-8 at the free throw line, while Nance secured a double-double, scoring 15 points and snagging a crucial 12 defensive rebounds. Buie, who had missed crucial shots down the stretch against Pitt, prepared intensely to achieve this feat, as he said after the game.
“After the Pitt game, I went to the gym the next day, and I didn't leave the gym until I made 1000 free throws and 500 three-pointers,” Buie said. “I was there for about four hours straight, I would say. It was kind of just to get back, just forget about it. Just being in there for a couple hours to just get my mind off yesterday's game just allowed me to move forward and to continue to show my talents.”
Northwestern also saw a fantastic performance from first-year guard Ty Berry, who came off the bench to score a critical 12 points and go 3-for-4 from downtown.
On the other side of the floor, Michigan State was led by junior forward Aaron Berry, who scored 10 points, and sophomore forward Malik Hall, who showed up everywhere with 10 points, nine rebounds and three assists.
Although Michigan State came into the game heavily favored, both teams traded key shots early on, matching each other in energy and in shot quality. Michigan State led early, only for the ’Cats to go on an 11-0 run. Michigan State clawed back to come within two, but Northwestern kept the pace and fought back. Finally, two back-to-back heat checks from Boo Buie put the ’Cats up big and allowed Northwestern to leave the floor at halftime leading 43-30.
Northwestern fans, however, were not convinced, as the ’Cats are known to choke away big leads in the second half. The ’Cats were aware of this label too, and continued to keep pace with the Spartans throughout the second half. With Buie continuing to play fantastically and Nance pulling off spectacular dunks on the Spartans, the ’Cats finished off the Spartans with swagger and style to boot.
“I think we've been through a lot together,” Nance said after the game. “I know you guys have been watching all those games, we've been through a lot, and we've been coming together, everybody loves each other. We just came together, and we're trying to change the narrative on what everybody thinks about us, but we can't finish all this stuff.”
Two key reasons why the ’Cats were able to win are their fantastic shooting and their pace of play, two things Collins has been stressing since the beginning of the season. The ’Cats shot 53% from the field, including 10-for-21 from downtown range. In comparison, the Spartans shot 39% from the floor and just 25% from three-point land. Also critical was the fast pace of Northwestern’s offense, as it not only allowed them to keep up with Michigan State’s flashy scorers, but also set the tone for the rest of the game.
“We learned a lot about ourselves offensively, shot selection, we want to play fast,” Collins said on the improvements his team made following the loss to Pittsburgh. “I think you saw that we weren't afraid to run with Michigan State, they’re as good a running team as there is. We got out, we got transition baskets–we have to continue to do that–and then when it came time, at the end of the game, I felt we got stops, we didn't turn it over, we made free throws."
Fresh off the victory, the ’Cats now own a perfect record in Big Ten play and will look to take on the Indiana Hoosiers (5-2, 0-0 B1G) on Wednesday. The win bodes well for the ’Cats going into Big Ten play, as a victory over the No. 4 ranked Spartans may give the team the confidence it needs going into games against No. 13 Illinois, No. 12 Wisconsin and the mighty No. 3 Iowa.
Who knows? Maybe the vibe around Welsh-Ryan changes without fans in attendance.