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Northwestern dies by the three in potentially devastating loss to Penn State

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A horrific shooting effort belies overall weak performance by the Wildcats.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON — When a team plays as poorly as Northwestern did Saturday night in a 71-62 loss to Penn State at Welsh-Ryan Arena, while going just 3 of 26 from three-point range, it's easy to blame the performance on the terrible shooting effort and ignore any other potential weaknesses.

In addition to missing a staggering amount of relatively open shots from beyond the arc — Northwestern's first made three was by Tre Demps with 10:21 left in the second half — the Wildcats did not play well on defense, allowing Penn State to shoot 43 percent from three and score a relatively efficient 71 points on just 44 shots (and 23 free throws).

Demps said as much after the game, lamenting how he felt his team just didn't bring enough energy and "togetherness" on the defensive end of the floor, which he said accounted for part of the Wildcats' horrible shooting. The senior guard led Northwestern with 22 points on 9-of-20 shooting (2 of 8 from three) but did most of his scoring late in the game when Penn State's defensive pressure let up. He only had four first-half points.

"The highlight of this game is that we didn't play well on the defensive end," Demps said afterward. "I don't know why, but everybody slipped. I think the key with our defense is talking, and there wasn't as much communication tonight as there was in the Wisconsin game."

For all of Northwestern's defensive issues though, it was the team's remarkably bad shooting that was the reason for the nine-point loss, of which the final score didn't do the game itself much justice. The Wildcats missed all 12 of their three-point attempts in the first half and weren't able to fare much better in the second.

Penn State was up 30-23 after that first half, which was characterized by Collins as the Nittany Lions showing a lot more energy and intensity than his team did, at least early on. Pat Chambers' team was coming off a pair of losses and showed much more urgency than Collins' team, which rode a two-game winning streak.

"I thought Penn State, to start the game, had better energy," Collins said. "They brought the fight to this game and it knocked us back, We weren't ready. You're not going to make shots if you don’t have the right attitude to start the game."

It's hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for why a particular team shoots poorly on any given night, but Chambers' lineup choices may have had something to do with it. Penn State started Shep Garner (6-foot-1), Brandon Taylor and Payton Banks (both 6-foot-6), Julian Moore (6-foot-10) and Jordan Dickerson (7-foot-1) tonight, using a particularly long starting five that Collins admitted "pushed us out" further beyond the three-point arc, forcing the Wildcats to take "a lot of deep threes, some NBA threes."

Once again, a fluid zone defense shut down Northwestern's offense, which was supposed to be energized by the return of Alex Olah from a six-game injury absence. Instead, it was stagnant for most of the night and Olah, who Collins wanted to get "around 10 minutes" or so of playing time, looked rusty in his seven minutes on the floor, going 1 of 4 from the field with some ugly shot attempts. It was clear Olah wasn't in full game shape, so the question about whether he should have played at all should be considered.

But, even with all of the missed shots, Collins reiterated multiple times in his postgame press conference that he did not want his team to stop taking open shots, especially from long-range.

"I'm not going to tell these guys not to shoot," Collins said. "We have to take open threes, and we have to make them. Sometimes, it's just a make-or-miss game. It is concerning, though, because we have shot much worse at home."

He's right; the Wildcats, thus far in Big Ten games (four) at home this season, have gone 15-for-83 from three. That translates to 18 percent, which is a big reason as to why Northwestern is 1-3 at home in conference play. This team just isn't good enough to be able to beat even mediocre teams with such bad perimeter shooting on its own home floor.

Against weak nonconference teams and the lower tier of the Big Ten (of which Penn State is probably a part of), such inefficient shooting could be withstood. But, when facing the better teams in the conference — the Wildcats have Maryland, Indiana, Michigan State and Iowa on the horizon in their next four games — it's just not going to fly.

If Northwestern is going to try and overcome this loss and the Ohio State loss as it tries to at least reach the NCAA Tournament bubble, it's going to have to win a few of those games, and that won't happen if NU's shooters continue to have these awful games. That certainly isn't Chris Collins' fault.