For the Northwestern diehards who came to the men’s basketball season opener for some consolation amid their beloved football team’s losing streak, the sense of emptiness transferred from Ryan Field to Welsh-Ryan Arena. In a game that the ‘Cats had a 95.6% chance to win according to ESPN’s win probability, Northwestern (0-1) lost to Merrimack College (1-1) 71-61.
The game started predictably well for the ‘Cats. Sophomore Miller Kopp scored 8 points in the first 2 minutes to give NU an early lead against a program that is playing just its second game in Division I basketball. But the excitement for Northwestern fans ended just there as Merrimack’s Devin Jenson started his own show beyond the arc. The junior made 5 threes, scoring 17 of the 36 first-half points for the Warriors.
After a 3 pointer by Ziggy Reid, Merrimack had its first lead of the game with 8:21 left in the half. Northwestern was unable to play to their advantages on paper as they struggled on both ends of the floor. Offensively, the ‘Cats relied on sophomore Pete Nance to work in the paint against a very aggressive 2-3 zone defense. Although Nance and his fellow big men were able to make plays or get to the free-throw line at times, their contributions were not consistent enough when they seemed to be Northwestern’s only scoring options. On the defensive end, the overall lack of effort made Northwestern unable to match the defensive efficiency it has produced over the past few years.
“This is not the same team as last year... You don’t have guys who have been in the program for a long time that learned how to play defense over a span of four and five years,” Coach Chris Collins said. “We [have] to get better with our habits [and] we got to be more active.”
At the half, Northwestern was down 36-35, foreshadowing a surprising dogfight that eventually lasted until the last minute of the game.
After they came out of the locker room, Northwestern’s offense showed some promise. Graduate guard Pat Spencer made a few floaters in a row to score seven points for the ‘Cats. Following Spencer’s run, Nance finally found his rhythm with the 2-3 zone. Despite a few questionable plays, he started to convert opportunities as they arose. Hitting turnaround jumpers, attacking the rim, you name it; Nance ended up having a career night with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
However, Spencer and Nance’s performances were not enough to save Northwestern’s overall dismal offense. The team shot 37.7% on their home court, and only converted 2 of the 16 attempts made outside the perimeter.
The second half belonged to Merrimack senior Juvaris Hayes. The veteran guard controlled the flow of the game on top of finishing with 19 points, 9 rebounds, and a game high of 7 assists. Aside from the impressive stat line, he delivered when Merrimack needed him the most. With 8:05 left in the game, Hayes hit a triple to prevent Northwestern to extend its lead or gain momentum - a key play that was remembered by Collins in the press conference.
“[Hayes] pretty much dominated the second half, ” Collins added.
Another play made by Hayes with 24 seconds left in the game was maybe too painful for Collins to mention, but the scene perfectly summarized this game up. Merrimack was up by nine; the game was effectively over unless Northwestern pulled a miracle. The ‘Cats fouled Hayes and put him on the line, and he ended up missing his shot. Amazingly, the 6-foot guard, as the only Merrimack player on his side of the court, somehow regained control of the ball with 4 Wildcats (not really) unable to grab the rebound.
This sequence perhaps best revealed how Northwestern suffered one of the worst losses in school history and handed their opponent its first-ever Division I victory. As Collins admitted in the press conference, they had their chances, but they carelessly gave them away. Their effort level was disappointing, and Merrimack’s victory was well deserved.
Northwestern will host Providence next Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena at 8 PM.
Statistics provided by SIDEARM https://nusports.com/sidearmstats/mbball/summary