EVANSTON — With 3:17 to go, Northwestern (15-3, 3-2 Big Ten) found itself in an increasingly familiar position. The scoreboard read 59-53 in the Wildcat's favor in a pivotal conference game.
Perhaps last year Northwestern would find a way to lose a close battle like this. Maybe it would be turnovers caused by a full-court press, one too many defensive breakdowns, or a downright spectacular, clutch shot by an opponent.
Bryant McIntosh had absolutely no interest in letting that happen Tuesday against Wisconsin (9-9, 1-4).
Despite the fact that seemingly everyone in the building knew he was getting the ball, McIntosh hit a clutch elbow jumper that put Northwestern up 8, and up for good. The final tally read 70-65, and Northwestern built on their blowout win over Minnesota to regain a winning record in conference play.
The Wildcats have won back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time this year, and picked up a victory despite making only four three-pointers.
McIntosh carried his team to victory in the truest sense of the phrase.
"He was just magnificent," head coach Chris Collins said. "People start realizing, he’s one of the best — forget about guards — one of the best players in the Big Ten. If you ask coaches in this league, he’s an elite, elite player and he absolutely led us to victory tonight."
McIntosh got going early, breezing by Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig on each of Northwestern’s first three possessions. Two of those resulted in McIntosh buckets, and the other a thunderous alley-oop that brought a good Welsh-Ryan crowd to its feet. The student section voiced their appreciation with chants at Koenig of "You can’t guard him!" which they repeated throughout the night.
They were correct.
McIntosh finished with 28 points on 10 of 19 shooting to go along with 5 assists. He’s evolved into an elite pick-and-roll player and was particularly effective in those situations tonight.
In the first half, Wisconsin would hedge on the pick-and-rolls and McIntosh was happy to distribute. When they made an adjustment in the second half and began switching, he was able to attack his defender or pull up for three in front of him.
"It's something that [Collins is] definitely encouraging me to do," McIntosh said. "One time I drove and he got on me for not just stepping into another [three] and taking it. I definitely wouldn't have done it last year, I probably would have looked to throw it into Olah, since a guard switched on him. It's just a little bit of a different mentality without him."
Collins said McIntosh played with the type of confidence that borders on cockiness, which is exactly what he wants to see from his sophomore point guard.
"I want him to believe he’s that good," Collins said. "Because he is."
Northwestern punched Wisconsin in the mouth from the onset, going up 14-5 in only 7 minutes of play. But the Wildcats then endured a scoring drought of 3:03 and Wisconsin inched back, closing the gap. The Badgers took their first lead at 18-16 on a Jordan Hill three and trailed by only 2, 26-24, at halftime.
In the beginning of the second half, Northwestern scored two quick buckets and looked poised to break the game open. Wisconsin, however, stuck around. There were four ties and eight lead changes before all was said and done.
The Badgers were able to keep it close largely because of the play of junior Nigel Hayes, a preseason All-American. Northwestern doubled him out of their 2-3 matchup zone — particularly in close proximity to the hoop — but Hayes was quick to pass and put Northwestern’s defense into scramble mode. He finished with 6 assists to go along with a team-high 17 points. Ethan Happ, a primary beneficiary of Hayes' passing out of the double, added 12.
A Zak Showalter three gave Wisconsin a 47-45 lead with 9:06 remaining, but the Badgers wouldn’t score again for more than 3 minutes of game time. Head Coach Greg Gard said his team hadn’t seen a zone defense in a while and had a difficult time preparing for it in only a few days.
"It’s something that I was concerned about, how we’d react to it, if we’d stand a lot," Gard said. "There were times we moved well and found gaps, but there were time I feel we stood too much."
While Northwestern’s defense frustrated Wisconsin, if Northwestern is going to beat the better teams in the Big Ten, McIntosh is likely going to need more support on the offensive end. No other Wildcat finished in double figures, though Sanjay Lumpkin and Aaron Falzon both finished with identical stat lines of 9 points and 5 rebounds.
A disappointing trend continued, as Tre Demps shot poorly once again. He went 3 of 10 for 8 points and looked out of sorts at times. A few questionable decisions prompted multiple fans to implore Demps to "pass the ball!"
Northwestern also struggled to kill the game with expediency, at times struggling with Wisconsin’s full-court press and missing key free throws. Gavin Skelly split a pair with 1:29 left and Demps missed both at the 1:13 mark.
McIntosh then headed to the line with :52 remaining and appropriately knocked home a pair to seal the victory.
He’ll want more help going forward, that's for certain.
But for one night, at least, McIntosh's heroics were enough.