It’s over. Northwestern men’s basketball (7-14, 4-13 B1G) has finally won a game again. After 61 days and 13 losses, the ’Cats were finally able to finish the job, climb the mountain and be on the other side of the floor.
Thank goodness, honestly. I had no idea how to make a pun out of the number 14.
The streak-shattering victory occurred Thursday night as the ’Cats won their final road game of the season, a 67-58 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers (13-11, 6-11 B1G). Despite one of their slowest starts this season, losing 17-3 with 12:06 to play in the first half, Northwestern was able to claw back into the match and dominate their opponent with hardcore defense and fantastic shooting all-around.
“Obviously a little bit better mood tonight than we've had the last couple weeks, but just really happy for our guys tonight,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said. “[I’m] just really proud of the guys. You walk into the locker room, and you see celebration, you see smiles. These guys are putting a lot into this thing … the way our guys have continued to battle through struggles, I have so much admiration.”
The ’Cats were led in their effort by sophomore guard Boo Buie, who led all scorers with 25 points, including a perfect 12-for-12 at the free throw line. Junior forward Miller Kopp also turned in a great performance, including some fantastic three-point shots to keep the ’Cats in close early.
“I thought Boo was fantastic,” Collins said. “He was the one guy we had that could kind of get downhill with drives that could attack their pressure and make plays. And then, Miller, I thought, had some big shots in the second half. You know, he had a couple big ones right in front of our bench. We were able to find him for some shots, which we haven't been able to do in the last number of games.”
On the other bench, Minnesota was led in their effort by junior guard Marcus Carr, who turned in a decent performance of 21 points, 8-for-8 free throw shooting, and a team-high seven assists and three downtown shots. First-year guard Jamal Mashburn Jr. also turned in a decent night with 13 points.
Despite the convincing result, the game was not always a sure thing. Northwestern came out flat-footed to start the first half, turning the ball over a whopping eight times in the first eight minutes. The Gophers took advantage and ran out to a 17-3 lead. The ’Cats took a timeout and began planning the comeback.
“When you lose 13 in a row, [and] you're down to 17 to three, I didn't feel like we had great energy,” Collins said. “It wasn't looking so good, and we had a really good huddle. I’ve actually got to give Ryan Greer credit … he really stepped up and really kind of lit into our guys, that we weren't fighting, we weren't getting stops, we weren't defending the way we needed to … I thought it really jumped started us.”
Following the huddle, the ’Cats began to claw their way back into the game and outscored the Gophers 16-2 to bring themselves back from the brink. Unlike their previous matchups, Northwestern was able to clamp down on the turnovers and begin driving the paint, picking up key layups and foul shots. Finally, a Kopp shot from downtown capped the run, bringing the ’Cats within one.
Of course, the Gophers kept clicking, and at the end of the first half, Minnesota led Northwestern 31-25. But the momentum had shifted. The ’Cats opened the second half with a 12-0 run and took their first lead of the night. Buie was instrumental in this run, scoring eight points and two deep three-pointers.
While the ’Cats would keep punching and even race out to a seven-point lead, Minnesota was never fully out of it, going on a 9-0 run of their own and retaking the lead. The ’Cats, noticing the trend, began going tit-for-tat with the Gophers, matching three-point shots, drives to the paint and fantastic defense all around.
With 4:55 to play and the Gophers leading 49-48, the ’Cats finally began looking like the team that was ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll 61 days ago. Five straight points from Kopp got Northwestern cooking, and a deep downtown shot from Buie put the ’Cats up by seven with under 100 seconds to play.
That was all the ’Cats needed, as they finally picked up their first win in two months.
So how did Northwestern finally win? Well for one, they shot way better than Minnesota, including going 19-for-45, with 7-for-18 from downtown, compared to the Gophers’ 23-for-62 and 4-for-27 from downtown. In addition, the ’Cats actually began to play to their strengths, and finally drove the paint to pick up great layups and key free throws: the ’Cats went 22-for-27 at the free throw line, compared to Minnesota’s 9-for-10.
“Our turnovers and our disparity at the free throw line have been two real negatives for us. Those are areas that have really held us back from winning,” Collins said postgame. “To come out tonight and go 22-for-27, especially down the stretch … that was huge under pressure and something we have to continue to do.”
The ’Cats are finally back in the win column and stand to pick up significant momentum at the right time. The team will now return home for at least two more games, against Maryland (14-10, 8-9 B1G) on Wednesday and against Nebraska (5-17, 1-14 B1G) on Sunday. The two games may allow the ’Cats to pick up some more key momentum going into the Big Ten Tournament and the offseason.
Thirteen games later, and the sky’s are finally open again.