One of the most popular Greek myths is the legend of Sisyphus. Legend says that as a punishment for his crimes, the gods punished him to roll a heavy boulder to the top of a mountain time and time again, only to watch it crash back down to the bottom every time. The myth is sometimes used to describe optimism around doomed events, like the hope that Northwestern men's basketball (2-1, 0-0 B1G) will not choke away a lead and lose in the final seconds.
Yeah. It happened again.
The Wildcats lost to Pittsburgh (3-1, 0-0 ACC) 71-70 Wednesday night, in their edition of the ACC-B1G Challenge. In the game, Northwestern led for 38 of a total 40 minutes and lost the lead in the final six seconds of the matchup. Despite leading by five with just 40 seconds to go, the ’Cats made key mistakes in stopping the Panthers’ full court press and went cold shooting over the last 90 seconds, scoring no points.
“Needless to say, very disappointing loss tonight,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said. “There were a lot of positives along the way, and a lot of things that we got to get a lot better at, including closing the game, certainly taking care of the ball and making free throws and getting stops. We’ve got to grow from this game, and find a way to close this thing out. So obviously our guys are very disappointed.”
The Panthers were led in their winning effort by stellar performance by sophomore forward Justin Champagnie, who nabbed a “perfect vision” double-double with 20 points and 20 rebounds, all while playing forty minutes. Champagnie also scored a key four points down the stretch, including the game winning dunk with under six seconds to play.
Pitt also saw a fantastic showing from junior guard Xavier Johnson, who led all scorers with 21 points, and junior guard Au’Diese Toney, who scored 18.
On the other side, Northwestern was led in their effort by sophomore center Ryan Young, who came off the bench to score 13 points, dish three assists and nab seven rebounds. Sophomore guard Chase Audige also had a decent night, scoring 12 points.
Leading the ’Cats in scoring, however, was sophomore guard Boo Buie, who scored 14 points and dished six assists. Buie’s effort, however, was undermined by his performance in the last minute. After Pitt scored to bring the team to within five, Buie fumbled his dribble in his own zone and allowed Champagnie to get an easy layup, bringing the Panthers to within one.
Buie was fouled on the ensuing possession and positioned with the chance to go up three again. Buie, who had gone 8-for-9 on free throw shooting until that point, missed both shots.
At first, the game was a gritty, grinding battle between two teams who couldn’t find the basket. Pitt struggled to find the hoop early on, going a whopping 3-for-25 over the first 12 minutes of the game. Northwestern wasn’t much better, working through tough downtown shooting while going 4-for-15, but did enough to work through the muck of it all. At the end of the first half, the ’Cats were up 33-22 led by Audige, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half.
At the beginning of the second half, however, the ’Cats began to be outpaced by the Panthers, who slowly but surely clawed their way back into contention with fantastic three-point shooting by the aforementioned Xavier Johnson. Meanwhile, Northwestern’s top defenders, senior guard Anthony Gaines and sophomore forward Robbie Beran, got into foul trouble, opening up more lanes. Still the ’Cats managed to seek out more opportunities, including nice downtown plays from Boo Buie and a key shot from Miller Kopp. With 90 seconds to play, the ’Cats led 70-65.
This is where it all went wrong. Pitt would be fouled and score on the ensuing possession, and the aforementioned series of errors by Buie occurred immediately after. Pitt had an exclamation dunk on the following possession to gain the lead for the first time in the game, and the ’Cats could not get a final shot off.
Two things doomed the ’Cats: early on, Northwestern failed to properly establish an inner zone offense, instead electing to go for a heavy three-point shooting approach. As a result, the ’Cats failed to capitalize on rebounds and didn’t score as much as they could have. The other dooming factor was a lack of good defensive stops in clutch time, as Northwestern failed to stop the Panthers from dominating inside.
“It's something we're familiar with unfortunately,” Ryan Young said after the game. “It's been a problem for us in the past. We have a lot of the same guys returning this year, so everybody remembers those losses that we had last year that were very similar to this game. We had the lead very late in the game, and we made crucial mistakes.”
The ’Cats have two non-conference games left, with the next coming against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville next Sunday, before kicking off the Big Ten season against No. 4 ranked Michigan State on Dec. 20. While Wednesday’s loss was disheartening, Collins said it comes with having played only three games, and they will work on issues down the stretch.
“We’ve got a lot to improve upon,” Collins said. “You live and you learn, man, you play the game and you watch the film and you get to work and you hopefully get better.”
Let's get the boulder rolling again.