The Northwestern men’s basketball team (21-10, 12-8 B1G) went into Sunday’s game against Rutgers (18-13, 10-10 B1G) with its back against the wall. NU was in the midst of a three-game losing streak, and its standing in the Big Ten Tournament hung in the balance. Win, and the Wildcats finish the season as the two-seed, securing an immediate pass to the quarterfinals of the tournament. Lose, and drop to ninth, with a tough road to the championship ahead.
Northwestern pulled through in the final game of the regular season, winning 65-53.
Defense was paramount in the first half for the ’Cats. The Rutgers Scarlet Knights shot just 33% from the field, and went scoreless for over five minutes in the middle of the half as Northwestern took the lead.
The Wildcat offense didn’t have a much easier time. NU shot 34.4% in the opening half and fourth-year guard Boo Buie was notably held scoreless. Buie has been the Wildcats’ leading scorer this year, but Rutgers keyed in on him with doubles and backcourt presses to force the ball out of his hands. In his stead, second-year guard Brooks Barnhizer stepped up and dropped eight first-half points. Barnhizer finished the game with 16 points and 10 rebounds, both team-leading figures.
The team spread the ball around more as well. Of the eight NU players that played in the first half, just two didn’t score a basket.
In the second half, Buie lit the court on fire (just metaphorically, although Rutgers’ smoking scoreboard did cause a delay in the game). He shot 4-7 in the second, scoring 14 points and nailing three from long range.
The offense was aided by third-year guard Ty Berry adding 12 points, and third-year center Matt Nicholson dropping 10, mostly coming from alley-oops as the Scarlet Knight defense left Nicholson alone in the paint all too often.
All told, the Wildcats made a leap offensively in the second half, shooting a blazing 61.9% from the floor. Meanwhile, Rutgers couldn’t reach the 40% mark, and a 4-point first half deficit grew into a 12-point finish. Fourth-year guard Cam Spencer was notably held in check. After scoring 23 points and the game-winning shot last time these teams played, Spencer was held to just nine this time out, and fouled out before the final buzzer.
Sunday's win is special for multiple reasons. The aforementioned seeding dilemma is now settled, but it also caps off one of the best regular seasons Northwestern has ever had. The team’s 12 conference wins makes for the most in program history, and its 21 total wins is good for second-best, behind just 2016-17, when Northwestern made their one and only NCAA Tournament appearance. This year’s squad is also all but confirmed to be going to the Big Dance this year, making the season even more historic.
Soon after the win, news broke that head coach Chris Collins is expected to sign a contract extension after the season, less than a year after Athletic Director Derrick Gragg tasked Collins with “making necessary changes to build toward success” in a public announcement. Collins was also named Big Ten Coach Of The Year, the first Northwestern coach to win the award since 2004.
The win – and the season – is special, but the ’Cats aren’t done just yet. They’ll play in the B1G Tournament on Friday, and they have the chance to build on this historic season.