For many, a week-long break is a blessing. It allows people to recharge their batteries, restructure their work, figure out what may not be working in their lives and come back to work fresh with new ideas. For Northwestern men’s basketball (6-9, 3-8 B1G), who had lost their seventh straight game before getting a week-long bye, there was a feeling of optimism going into Sunday night’s matchup against Rutgers (10-6, 6-6 B1G). Maybe they could finally figure it out.
But in typical Northwestern fashion, it seems the ’Cats forgot they weren’t on break anymore, losing to the Scarlet Knights 64-56. The game was a rough showing for both teams, but was marred by Northwestern’s inability to stop long scoring runs, including a dominant opening from Rutgers, in which the ’Cats were outscored 31-11 over the first 11 minutes.
Granted, the ’Cats were able to claw back with a decent run of their own, with an 18-3 outburst to close the half, but the deficit was simply too much to overcome.
“Frustrating night for us, to say the least,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said after the game. “[I] give Rutgers credit … I thought the first 10 minutes of the game was the story. I told our guys, when you spot a good team 20 points, it's hard to come back from 20 points down in this league against good teams … We’ve got to continue to get better, we’ve got to figure it out, and that's what we'll do as a staff and as a team.”
Rutgers saw fantastic performances in their victory by senior guard Geo Baker, who scored 12 points, and junior guard Ron Harper Jr., who swished 13 points and had a great defensive performance: one steal, one block and two rebounds. The Scarlet Knights, however, were led by senior guard Jacob Young, who came off the bench for a fantastic shooting performance: 6-for-10 from the floor for 19 points.
The ’Cats were led in their effort by three key players; junior forward Miller Kopp, who scored 15 points and grabbed four rebounds, sophomore guard Chase Audige, who scored 14 and swiped five steals and sophomore center Ryan Young, who continued his fantastic play off the bench with 14 points, three rebounds and an assist.
“He gives us a big physical guy, gets on the glass, he can protect the basket, gives us a low post scoring threat,” Collins said on Ryan Young’s play. “He gets 14 tonight, and I think he's going to continue to get better, but I just feel like he's rounding into shape, he's getting his legs back. Obviously, he's a real key guy for us. We need him if we're going to be successful.”
As mentioned, the game was never exactly close for the ’Cats. Rutgers got off to the aforementioned quick run, and controlled almost all aspects of the floor: scoring 31 points, including 5-for-10 from behind the arc. The ’Cats then locked down defensively and went on a scoring run of their own, with fantastic plays from Kopp, Young and Audige leading the way down the stretch. At the end of the half, Northwestern only trailed Rutgers by five, 34-29.
Unfortunately, the ’Cats couldn’t follow this momentum in the second half; Over the first twelve minutes, Northwestern only scored nine points on only three made field goals. While Rutgers wasn’t exactly knocking down all their shots, the Scarlet Knights still made enough to create a large lead, 52-38. Despite another 10-0 run down the stretch, it was too little, too late for the ’Cats, who would end up losing by eight.
“I don't know that it was execution,” Ryan Young said after the game. “But, last four minutes of game’s when you need to be your best… I thought we were solid defensively, they made two tough shots, but the teams that play well in the last four minutes win games, and they made the shots and we turned the ball over and missed ours. I don’t think it was execution, necessarily; I thought that we were getting the ball where we needed to be and just were careless with it.”
Despite what the scores and scoring droughts indicate, this was a largely even game statistically: each team had similar totals in all the important measures, including rebounds (NU with 28, RU with 29) assists (NU with 10, RU with 12) and turnovers (NU with 20, RU with 18). Where the ’Cats dropped, however, was in floor shooting: the Scarlet Knights simply made more shots, swishing 23-of-47 to Northwestern’s 20-of-48. The ’Cats just allowed too many open shots and great plays, something the team will have to address going forward.
The ’Cats will now have another extended break without games, as their scheduled matchup against Michigan on Wednesday was postponed due to COVID-19 concerns within the Wolverines’ program. The extra days may help the ’Cats figure out their struggles and perhaps get them the edge they need before they take on No. 24 Purdue (12-6, 7-4 B1G).
“It's gonna be finding a way to fight,” Young said. "This league is tough, but it's not like it hasn't been done before … We know we can win in this league. So it's just gonna be coming out and fighting this week, being ready for Purdue on Saturday. Everybody here realizes that it's tough … but it's not impossible. We've proved that our team, and countless other teams in the league, prove that as well.”
Let’s hope they remember to wake up.