Unlike its performance in the season-opening 79-57 win over UMass Lowell, Northwestern got off to a good start. Also unlike the game against the River Hawks, the Wildcats struggled mightily in the second half. Eventually, it came down to Bryant McIntosh posting 20 points to help the hosts hold on by seven, 79-72.
The Stags hung tough for much of the first half despite the hot start from the Wildcats, keeping the deficit to single digits for almost all of the first twenty minutes, getting as close as five, but the Wildcats finished the half on a 10-5 run to push their lead at halftime to 10, 39-29. The Wildcats had good scoring balance in the half, led by Falzon with nine. Tre Demps had seven, and Alex Olah, Bryant McIntosh and Joey Van Zegeren each had six.
The Wildcats picked up right where they left off after the break, with McIntosh getting a steal and Falzon finishing in traffic, then rebounding a Fairfield miss and McIntosh getting a layup in transition. Exactly one minute into the half, Fairfield was forced to take a timeout. But the Stags didn't go away. After getting into the bonus very early in the half, the visitors combined getting to the foul line with some poor Northwestern shooting to get within three multiple times. But McIntosh put his struggling team on his back, getting into the lane and converting an acrobatic old-fashioned three-point play with just under a minute left to put the hosts up eight.
It certainly wasn't pretty for the Wildcats, who went just 2-11 from deep in the second half and were forced to substitute Van Zegeren and Olah often, as both had four fouls. The Wildcats got somewhat complacent offensively, looked slow and unfocused on the defensive end, and committed way, way too many fouls. Credit Fairfield for playing hard and making this game too close for comfort, but through two games against inferior opponents, Northwestern is yet to play a complete 40 minutes. Nevertheless, a win is a win, and Northwestern will head into the matchup against Columbia on Friday at 2-0.
Three major takeaways
1. Balanced scoring
Against UMass Lowell, it was almost all Falzon (20 points) and Olah (21), scoring-wise. Tonight, the scoring effort was shouldered by a host of Wildcats, an encouraging sign. Four Wildcats hit double digits, led by McIntosh's 20. Falzon, like most of his teammates, cooled off considerably in the second half but finished with 13. Olah added 11, and Demps, who struggled with his shot (4-16, 0-7 from three) and posted an offensive efficiency rating of 4.0 (really, really bad), managed to get 14.
2. Aggressive play from McIntosh
The sophomore guard looked to get in the lane much more often than he did against UMass Lowell and it paid dividends. Along with the 20 points on 8-13 shooting, he dished out five assists while committing just one turnover. When he did miss in the lane, he often had teammates cleaning up on the offensive glass. When McIntosh looks to score rather than be solely a distributor, this team is much, much better. He did that tonight, and he pulled his team through a rough second half. He showed the offensive prowess that was on display at times last year, getting his patented floater going and knocking down two three-pointers.
3. Fouls were a major issue
Fairfield was in the bonus with almost fifteen minutes left in the second half. The biggest rule change to college basketball was the 30 second shot clock, but that hasn't bothered the Wildcats at all. What did bother them on this night was the new "freedom of movement" rules, which means more off-ball defensive fouls will be called. They certainly were tonight. Whether it's a matter of adjusting to the rules or simply playing smarter defense, it's an adjustment the Wildcats need to make.