Northwestern men’s basketball (10-10, 3-8 B1G) is absolutely fascinating to analyze, and devastating to follow; they lose games they could absolutely win and win games that they probably should have lost. They have one of the most potent offenses in the league, and it fails them when they need it most. The Wildcats are, in short, a journalist’s dream and a fan’s nightmare.
So when they took on Rutgers (12-9, 6-5 B1G) on Tuesday night, it was an unbelievable matchup that highlighted almost everything right and wrong with this team. Despite winning the game 79-78 in an overtime matchup, Northwestern choked away an 18-point halftime lead – and a 20-point lead with 15 minutes left – to the Scarlet Knights. It was a difficult game to watch.
“Obviously it was a game of two totally different halves,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said postgame. “We would have loved to protect our lead … I would have loved it for my blood pressure, but at the end of the day, maybe it’s even better that we had to win a close game. You know, maybe it’s even better that we face that kind of game pressure … I do know that we talked about this being a must win, and everybody in that locker room was really excited, so it’s really fun, and it was fun to get the win tonight.”
Northwestern did see significant contributions across the board as four players scored double-digit point totals. Junior guards Boo Buie and Chase Audige led the way for the ’Cats, with Buie scoring 18 points and dishing four assists while Audige scored 15 and nabbed seven rebounds. Senior forward Pete Nance and junior forward Robbie Beran also contributed, scoring 10 and 11 points, respectively.
Rutgers was led in their comeback by junior guard Paul Mulcahy, who turned in perhaps one of the best performances of the season: 31 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and four steals. Mulcahy was aided in his effort by sophomore center Clifford Omoruyi, who picked up 22 points and six rebounds.
At first, it looked as if it would be a special night for a team who had lost their previous four games, as the ’Cats hit the game running in the first half. Led by some absolutely gorgeous offensive play – including shooting a pretty 59% from the floor – the Wildcats seemed to be toying with their opponents early, with nice ball movement around the zone. Audige, in particular, seemed to be having a great time:
After heading into the half up 43-25, the ’Cats seemed apt to continue their great ball movement, with plenty of players getting involved; with just under 15 minutes to play, Northwestern was up 55-35 and the Welsh-Ryan faithful was ready for a celebration.
And then… Rutgers woke up. Swapping to a more aggressive strategy, the Scarlet Knights locked down on the Wildcat offense, holding them to just one field goal over the next nine minutes. On the other side of the floor, Rutgers quietly put together a bit of a scoring run, chipping away at the deficit.
Despite six straight points from junior forward Ryan Young and the continued scoring efforts of Buie, the ’Cats seemed open for business defensively, and fell back into old habits; with just over two minutes to play, Northwestern fully converged in the interior, leaving Mulcahy wide open in the corner to put the game in serious jeopardy.
After another failed offensive possession, Rutgers took control of the ball down two with eight seconds to play, and the Knights’ dynamic duo of Mulcahy and Omoruyi found a way to finally tie the game. Mulcahy dished an unbelievable set up to his center man, completely sucking the energy out of the purple faithful and sending the game to overtime. The dunk was an exclamation point on what was a 45-27 second half for Rutgers, as well as the end of a 35-15 run.
Once in overtime, it became a battle of endurance; Mulcahy and Audige traded shots to open the period, but neither team seemed willing to give up anything more than that, and the first two minutes were almost completely scoreless. Finally, a hero emerged for the ’Cats: Buie, who scored the Wildcats’ final six points – including a dagger from downtown and some clutch free throws down the stretch – and Northwestern found a way to hold on in the final seconds, sending their bench – as well as their head coach – into a frenzy.
“We didn’t have students the first three games, which obviously hurt us,” Collins said on his overtime reaction. “Tonight I was just really appreciative of the fans that were there and everybody that backs our program, comes to all these games. A lot of people in the crowd, they’re living and dying with what this team’s doing. They’ve really enjoyed this group, and it just was kind of a moment there, when we got that final rebound … It was just an exciting moment to kind of share it with the home crowd, because we haven’t been able to do that so far in the conference. So hopefully, we’ll have four more opportunities. We can get a few more before the season ends.”
While the ’Cats did find a way to eke out a win, there are still plenty of things to worry about for Northwestern. They succeeded in locking down Rutgers’ three-point attack – holding the Scarlet Knights to just 4-for-17 from downtown – but the main issue for Northwestern this game was just the inability to get back to basics. Scoring 15 points in the final 15 minutes and committing 18 turnovers is not ideal for a Division I team; despite this, the team is going to enjoy this win as much as possible.
“I know there’s a lot of doomsday people in here,” Collins said, referring to the various journalists in the postgame conference. “That’s fine, we won, so I’m happy … I know you guys don’t want to see them, but I saw a lot of good things out of our team and I'm really proud of them.”
The good news? They’ll have plenty of time to adjust and get back to basics, and maybe enjoy a good opportunity to find their footing in their next game: a road visit to the league’s worst team, Nebraska (6-16, 0-11 B1G).
Here’s hoping, at least; while this team has given me plenty of material to write about, my heart can’t take much more of this.