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Northwestern shows signs of improvement in 54-40 loss to No. 4 Michigan State

EVANSTON, Ill. -- The first three minutes of Northwestern’s game against No. 4 Michigan State Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena went the way they were supposed to. Spartans guard Gary Harris drilled a jumper from the elbow before the Wildcats knew what hit them for a 2-0 lead. Then Harris stripped Alex Olah and drove the other way for a layup. A missed jumper from JerShon Cobb followed, and the Spartans grabbed two offensive boards before guard Travis Trice made it 6-2 with a layup around the 17:30 mark.

Here was Michigan State, dominating lowly Northwestern in exactly the fashion a top-five team with designs on a national championship should.

About two hours later, after Michigan State pulled away for a 54-40 victory, minutes one through three felt like a distant memory. Northwestern didn’t beat Michigan State, but it showed more resiliency against a top-tier opponent than it has all season.

If Sunday’s 49-43 win against Illinois was not a turning point, at the very least it seems to have provided the Wildcats a spark they didn’t have over the first three games of their Big Ten schedule – when they lost to Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa by an average margin of 25.3 points.

“I thought tonight’s game was just a battle,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “I couldn’t be prouder of how our guys played tonight. Sometimes you can play that well and the other team’s just a little bit better. And I really thought that was the case.”

The teams went back-and-forth throughout the first half, though neither Northwestern nor Michigan State was able to establish much offensive rhythm. The Wildcats’ best player, Drew Crawford had just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, Olah had 4 on 2-for 3 and the team shot just 31 percent from the field. Michigan State shot 44.4 percent but went an abysmal 1-for-11 from three.

After the break, Michigan State seemed to find a different gear and jumped out to a six-point lead on an Alex Gauna layup with just under 18 minutes to go. The Wildcats continued to battle, but their effort could not overcome the Spartans’ superior athleticism and talent. Gauna effectively iced the game when he hit a jumper around the six-minute mark that put Michigan State up 11.

The final score, and Michigan State’s ability to assert control over the second half, obscure what was an encouraging performance for Northwestern. It battled the Spartans on the glass (Northwestern grabbed 30.6 percent of its misses; Michigan State grabbed 36.8). It defended well. It blocked shots (Olah and Lumpkin each had two). Most important, it didn’t look overmatched.

“I just thought they played as hard as anybody we’ve played,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Said Collins, “If we play like we did tonight, we’ll be in position to win a lot of games[Michigan State] is just better than us right now.”

Northwestern will come away from this game knowing that -- although they were able to hang tough with one of the best teams in the country -- they will need to play better over the next two months. Crawford, who scored just six points on 1-of-8 shooting, needs to break out of the slump he's mired in. Olah needs more touches in the post. Northwestern can’t score roughly 0.80 points per possession and expect to win.

The difference between this game and the three eggs Northwestern laid to open Big Ten play is that it didn’t make things easy for its opponent. The Wildcats played with enough effort and energy to give the Spartans fits. Had Northwestern simply laid down and gotten run off the court by Michigan State, all the positivity surrounding its first Big Ten win would have quickly been forgotten. The Wildcats can move forward content with the way they competed, while still acknowledging it was only one minor step in a larger developmental trajectory.

“The team we have right now is versus who we were a week and a half ago is a completely different team,” Collins said.

The Wildcats have a long way to go. But they are getting better.