Usually when a team scores 87 points in college basketball, it means they win. Unfortunately, this was not the case for Northwestern men's basketball (8-5, 1-3 B1G) on Sunday afternoon. The 'Cats lost a 95-87 shootout to Ohio State (10-3, 4-1 B1G) in a game that saw terrific highs for Northwestern – with three players scoring more than 20 points – as well as a hard loss to swallow for the team.
The story of the game was an unbelievable stretch by Buckeyes junior forward E.J. Liddell, who led all players in scoring with 34 points. In the first five minutes of the game, Liddell was an unstoppable threat, swishing five three-point shots and recording 17 points to put the Buckeyes up 19-11, a lead Ohio State would never lose.
“Credit to Ohio State, they came out of the gates, [and] the first five minutes in the game really told the story,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said postgame. “I was very displeased with our defense early in the game in a lot of areas, [like] losing E.J.; he made five threes in a row, that wasn't really the game plan, was to not to let him shoot. But credit to him, he's a hell of a player.”
Although the ’Cats never made up the deficit, they still saw a few shining performances. Sophomore guard Ty Berry was the star for Northwestern, setting a new career high in points with 23 points, including some ridiculous shots of his own from behind the arc.
Northwestern also saw solid performances from several other players: senior forward Pete Nance and junior guard Chase Audige rounded out the scoring threat with 20 points each, while junior guard Boo Buie rounded out the offense with 11 points and eight assists of his own.
“I felt good about our offensive game plan coming into the game, but you’ve got to execute,” Collins said postgame. “It certainly wasn't our offense today. I thought we did some really good things on that end to give ourselves a chance to kind of get back in the game. We just couldn't get the stops.”
While Liddell’s opening outburst set the tone for the game, Northwestern never fell back on their heels. The ’Cats strived to make up the deficit, with solid shooting from Buie and Berry keeping the team alive towards the end of the first half. While the offense clicked, the defense couldn’t seem to find their footing, and Ohio State led 51-39 at halftime, the most points the ’Cats had given up in the first half this season.
The ’Cats came out swinging in the second half, and slowly began making up the 12-point deficit. Riding a 12-4 run, Northwestern cut the lead to just four points after some key buckets from Berry, including a deep three-pointer that almost silenced Value City Arena.
Despite Northwestern's fantastic play, Ohio State was not keen on giving up their lead. The Buckeyes answered with a run of their own, pushing the paint and picking up key fouls from the Wildcat starters, heading to the free throw line. The ’Cats quickly saw their 4-point close game balloon into an 12-point deficit – a lack of clean play down the stretch doomed their chances.
“I really challenged our guys at halftime to play with more physicality, to play tougher, to play with more fight on the floor,” Collins said postgame. "We got ourselves back in the game. We thought we did some really good things. Obviously our offense was good … every time we made a run, I thought they found a way to get themselves to the free throw line … We could never really kind of put real game pressure on him down the stretch, which we were trying to do, but a difficult loss for us.”
The loss was almost a perfect representation of the Northwestern season so far. While the ’Cats showed flashes of brilliance – with their 87 points being the most they’ve scored in Big Ten play since 2017 – the team’s inability to play a complete game and lock down their opponents defensively doomed them down the stretch. There are plenty of upsides, as having three players scoring more than 20 points would suggest, but those still make the loss incredibly frustrating to Northwestern fans. Even when the team is successful, they can’t get over the final hill and win important games.
“When you want to have a winning program, it has to be a full commitment by everyone – it's not just the coach, it's the administration,” Collins said postgame. “You're trying to climb the ladder in a really tough league – in my opinion, the best in the country – so you’ve got to fight, you’ve got to be tough-minded, you got to keep at it … hopefully we can continue to prove we have great aspirations for what this team can be, and there's still a lot of season left.”
The ’Cats will try to snap the three-game losing streak when they take on Maryland (8-7, 0-4 B1G) – who they beat 67-61 just over a month ago – at home Wednesday night. Let’s hope they’re ready to punch their cards and pick up some good minutes for a change.