Chase Audige handles the ball. He and Boo Buie have formed one of the best backcourt tandems in the Big Ten. Photo by Brandi Simpson/North by Northwestern

“Whew. That was close.”

That was the feeling of the Northwestern men’s basketball team (16-7, 7-5 B1G) after winning a nail-biter against Wisconsin (13-9, 5-7 B1G) 54-52 last Sunday.

The victory marks the end of a two game skid for the squad, coming off back-to-back losses to Iowa (15-8, 7-5 B1G) and Michigan (13-10, 7-5 B1G). It also gives an upbeat finish to a brutal portion of the ’Cat’s schedule, playing six games in two weeks, and three in just six days.

The fatigue was visible in a Wildcat offense that averages 68.3 points per game being held to just 54 against the Badgers. It wasn’t from a lack of efficiency – the ’Cats shot 46.7% from the field, above their season average (40.7%). Most of this scoring drop came from the Wildcats making just four three-pointers, about 3.5 less than their usual output.

Fourth-year guard Boo Buie led the team in scoring for the ninth time this season with 13 points, fighting tooth and nail for each one. He shot 4-10 from the field, and scored Northwestern’s last four points, all coming from the free throw line.

While Buie led the charge, this win doesn’t happen without crucial performances from role players – especially ones new to the rotation.

After missing last year’s campaign with injury, second-year guard Brooks Barnhizer has exploded onto the scene in a bench role this year, and added another solid performance in Madison. The Lafayette, Indiana, native played 28 minutes and was all over the floor, putting up 8 points, 7 rebounds (tied for most on the team) and threw in a block and a steal for good measure.

First-year forward Nick Martinelli hasn't had a consistent role in the rotation, but with second-year guard Julian Roper II out to injury, Martinelli stepped up and delivered. He scored 6 points while not missing a single shot from the field.

Finally, with third-year starting center Matt Nicholson dealing with foul trouble all game, graduate student Tydus Verhoeven filled the gap masterfully. He played 24 minutes to Nicholson’s 16, and played excellent defense down the stretch to hand Northwestern the win.

Team defense fueled yet another victory for the Wildcats, as Wisconsin was held to just 38% shooting from the field, although the defensive performance wasn’t flawless. Northwestern fell victim to one of their few defensive follies, letting certain players on other teams get hot and stay that way. The spark plug for the Badgers were second-year guard Chucky Hepburn and first-year guard Connor Essegian. Hepburn took the defense to task all night, finishing with 17 points, leading both teams. After struggling in his first game against the Wildcats in January, Essegian blazed his way to 15 points, all coming from a career high five three-pointers. Northwestern scraped by with another win, but holding opposing stars in check is a must for this defense moving forward.

This win is more than just another number on the Wildcats record – it’s their 16th win of the season, which secures head coach Chris Collins’ squad their first winning season since the 2016-17 campaign, the year Northwestern made its first and only NCAA Tournament appearance.

Speaking of the big dance, Sunday’s result also kept NU’s tournament hopes alive. The ’Cats now have 16 wins and seven in conference play. A 20-win season would all but solidify a spot in March Madness for Chicago’s Big Ten Team, and they now have 8 games left to reach that historic mark.

A dramatic finish and a pivotal win with playoff implications. Wildcat fans, this is one to remember.

Thumbnail photo by Brandi Simpson/North by Northwestern