Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Northwestern men’s basketball (9-10, 2-8 B1G) starts out slow. They score a lot of points. They take a lead and give you hope. Then, they lose a close game late. You leave brokenhearted. Rinse and repeat.
Have we used this opener before? Probably, but it remains just as relevant. The Wildcats came up short on Saturday against in-state rival – No. 24 Illinois Fighting Illini (15-5, 8-2 B1G) – 59-56 in front of a sell-out home crowd.
“I feel sick, I want so badly for [our guys] to get over the hump with this,” said Northwestern head coach Chris Collins of his team’s performance post-game. We couldn’t have fought any harder on the defensive end.”
In the second half, Northwestern played about as well as they have all season, stifling most of the Illinois players and forcing star junior center Kofi Cockburn to shoot 21 times to earn his game-leading 22 points. The next-highest scorer for the Fighting Illini – senior guard Alfonso Plummer – knocked out just two shots out of six, scoring nine points.
Northwestern was led in their effort by senior forward Pete Nance, who swished 21 points and picked up five rebounds in the effort. Junior guard Boo Buie was active on defense, highlighted by blocking a three-point attempt that led Northwestern’s Ty Berry, a sophomore guard, scoring his own three.
Elyjah Williams, the graduate transfer forward, was tasked with defending Cockburn and he delivered not only in that regard, but on offense too.
“I try to be as physical as I can and use my quickness, give them no easy shots,” said Williams on his defensive strategy.
The game did not start out as well for Northwestern, though. The ’Cats shot an abysmal 23% in the first half, compared to a 47% second-half shooting performance. Both Nance and junior center Ryan Young found themselves in foul trouble early, and shots that rattled out of the basket for the ’Cats fell in for the Illini.
Offensively, the team found its groove later in the game, including a pair of threes by Nance late in the game to help Northwestern take its first lead, sending the ’Cats crowd into a frenzy. Stellar defense and knocking down shots helped the Wildcats build a lead of six points. The students who came out to Welsh-Ryan Arena were going crazy as they watched their team put together a run on their hated rival.
“I hope our students will keep coming out even though we’ve come up short. When there’s energy in Welsh-Ryan, it’s really a fun place for a game,” Coach Collins stated of the atmosphere.
With Nance sinking shots and Welsh-Ryan shaking with excitement, the ’Cats built up a five-point lead with just under six minutes to play. Yet just like in other games this season, Northwestern went completely cold in the closing moments; they were outscored 13-2 over the next five minutes, including a dunk by “super senior” forward Da’Monte Williams that sucked the life out of the purple faithful.
Despite a few set pieces and an open shot from senior guard Ryan Greer, the ’Cats would not find the basket again, fouling Illinois and letting them take a six-point lead. It was a disheartening loss; one ’Cats fans have seen frequently as of late.
The last six games, all against top teams, have been a brutal stretch for the Wildcats who have played every game close, but only have one win to show for their efforts. They sit in second-to-last place in the B1G but arguably have played better than their record shows. They rank in the top 5 in conference scoring and assist-to-turnover differential, and they held Illinois to under 60 points. There’s no quit in these Wildcats, but one has to wonder if they can muster enough strength to escape this slump.
With conference play reaching its halfway point, the Wildcats have 10 games to turn around their fortunes. Foul disparities and being unable to play two good halves have plagued this team. Of their eight B1G losses, the ’Cats have had a second half lead in five of them. This team has shown they have talent; now they just need to figure out how to finish games. Their next opportunity comes on February 1 against Rutgers (12-8, 6-4 B1G).
“We’ve won two and lost eight, but who’s to say we can’t flip the script and win eight” said Nance. “We’ve worked too hard to not get over the hump.”
Nance is optimistic. Though it hurts to hope, Northwestern fans should be, too. After all, even never-ending stories don’t last forever.