The Northwestern Wildcats (15-5, 6-3 B1G) are back in business.
After celebrating their Saturday afternoon with a blowout 81-61 win over Minnesota (7-13, 1-9 B1G), the Wildcats moved into second place in the Big Ten, with only Purdue (21-1, 10-1 B1G), currently ranked #1 in the country, ahead of them.
Head coach Chris Collins called the three-game streak “a big week for us” and that “to be able to come out of this stretch 3-0 was important.”
Despite the tipoff being at 11 a.m., the energy level throughout the building was high all game, especially thanks to yet another packed student section. Collins said “I can’t say enough about the atmosphere in that building” and “our students just wouldn’t let us not be energetic.”
Fifth-year guard Chase Audige, who scored 24 points to lead all scorers, concurred, saying the student section “really brings a boost to us.”
But while the fan energy was helpful, the energy that led to the blowout was the energy on defense. Northwestern was dominant all game, forcing 15 turnovers and holding the Golden Gophers to a rough 28% mark from three point land.
It was that defensive intensity that shifted the game from the close contest it was early to the blowout it became. The Wildcats were down 11-7 just over six minutes into the game, but used seven Minnesota giveaways to go on a 24-7 run to lead 31-18 with six minutes to play in the first half.
The Golden Gophers would never again get closer than that 13-point margin, mostly thanks to an offensive masterpiece from the Wildcats. Northwestern shot 51.7% from the field, 45% from three-point range, and 83.3% from the charity stripe.
“It’s taken me a little bit of time to sort of figure it out offensively,” Collins said, but he does believe that something has shifted. “We’re shooting the ball a lot better...we did a really good job.”
A big reason for that shift is the starting backcourt, consisting of Audige and fourth-year guard Boo Buie; Buie scored 21 points and chipped in eight assists in 37 splendid minutes of action.
Collins said that coaching and winning is a lot easier “when you have two elite guards like we do,” and the stats back him up. Buie and Audige have now combined for 113 points over the last 3 games, just over 50% of the entire team’s total.
Both stars credited their teammates for the performances over this winning streak. Buie, who moved into fourth all-time in Northwestern history with 381 assists, said “My teammates are stepping up and making shots.”
Audige was in agreement, saying “We have guys stepping up every single night.”
One of those players was first-year forward Nick Martinelli, who has seen increased minutes in the aftermath of second-year guard Julian Roper II’s ankle injury against Wisconsin. Collins credited Martinelli for his hustle in a five-rebound performance, calling the first-year “someone we can count on.”
The team’s performance in Big Ten play so far has been incredible, and has many looking back to six years ago, when the 2016-17 Wildcats opened conference play 7-2 en route to a 21-10 record and an eventual spot as an eighth seed in March Madness.
However, Collins is refusing to look that far ahead yet.
“Every team is different, they [the 2017 team] were special…I think a lot of that [talk] is premature,” the head coach said postgame.
However, Collins did show some cautious optimism, saying “I think we’re starting to figure it out.” He also said the team was excited to move forward but noted “We’ve got a big stretch coming up.”
Indeed they do. It’s another three-game week for the ‘Cats, who have to deal with Iowa on the road on Tuesday, then welcome Michigan to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday before traveling to Wisconsin to face a Badgers team they narrowly beat last week in Evanston.
It’s no longer a secret how good this team is, with national reporters starting to take notice; ESPN’s Joe Lunardi had NU as a #10 seed in his latest bracket predictions from January 27. Since the new year, Northwestern has gone 5-3 with only one of those losses by double digits. Collins called the squad “a team you can root for” and said he “can’t wait to get back out there in a couple days.”
With the offense hitting its stride, there may very well be another 3-0 week in the Wildcats’ near future. And if there is, then Northwestern fans may be able to talk about potential 3-0 weeks later in the year. But those weeks won’t be in January or February.
They’ll be in March.
Thumbnail Photo by Brandi Simpson/North by Northwestern