EVANSTON — Sanjay Lumpkin darted to the middle of the lane, finding a rare piece of open floor, and elevated. As Bryant McIntosh's jumper rimmed off, Lumpkin, seemingly uncontested, corralled a rebound, brought it down, and then sprung right back up, two feet from the front of the rim, to drop the ball in the hoop.
Instead, it careened back in the direction it came from. Or rather, it was sent back by Maryland power forward Robert Carter.
A weeks ago, it wouldn't have. Against Sacred Heart, Chicago State or Mississippi Valley State, it would've settled in the hoop for two Northwestern points.
But Saturday night, it didn't. Northwestern's matchup with Maryland at Welsh-Ryan Arena, both teams' second Big Ten game, was played at a level with which the Wildcats were unfamiliar. It was a whole new game, and a whole different game. And after feasting on cupcakes throughout non-conference play, the Wildcats seemed taken aback.
"It was the most determined and best I've seen them defensively all year," Northwestern coach Chris Collins said of his opponents. "They did a great job with their length and athleticism forcing us out of the things we wanted to do."
It wasn't just that Northwestern's shots were better contested by the Terrapins. Every pass was more difficult. Every cut was more difficult. Every screen, every movement, every ball fake, every dribble was less effective than it had been in non-conference play, and early on, it seemed like a shock to NU's system.
"Their height and length bothered us a little bit," Northwestern guard Bryant McIntosh said. "They were able to reach into some of the drives, and kind of nab at the ball, and we fumbled it a little bit."
Northwestern entered the game with a top-25 offense nationally, one that seemed to be coming into its own just two years after finishing 309th out of 351 teams in adjusted efficiency. But Maryland took the Wildcats out of their rhythm.
"We were disruptive," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said postgame. "The things that we tried to take away, we took away. They run a hundred sets, and we were dialed in on ‘em. We were really prepared."
Some individual Wildcat players held their own. McIntosh seemed unfazed by the pressure of Melo Trimble. But Jake Layman shut down Aaron Falzon, and Rasheed Sulaimon pestered Tre Demps into a 4-16 night from the field.
"It was a tough night for Tre," Collins said. "Rasheed was hounding him all night long. He forced him into tough shots. In the first half, they were really spending so much attention on our shooters, and when we drove, we had those little floaters. There were about four or five opportunities to loosen a defense a little bit." Northwestern's inability to score one-on-one though meant Maryland wasn't compelled to help off of NU's shooters.
On the interior, Northwestern was simply outmanned. At one point, it tried to match Diamond Stone (6-foot-11), Robert Carter (6-foot-9) and Jake Layman (6-foot-9) with Dererk Pardon (6-foot-8), Sanjay Lumpkin (6-foot-6) and Scottie Lindsey (6-foot-5). Just as drives couldn't unlatch Maryland's defense, neither could throwing the ball into the post.
It's not that Maryland's superiority was unexpected. It's not even that Northwestern was unprepared for the uptick in athleticism that it would face. But it was impossible to mentally prepare for what the Wildcats would face against Maryland without physically experiencing it. Everything happened at a quicker pace. Everything required a bit more strength, or a bit more explosiveness. Oftentimes, it was that strength or that explosiveness that Northwestern just didn't have.
Because they didn't, the Wildcats became frustrated. Chris Collins did. He snapped at his team after another one in a sequence of first half turnovers and Maryland layups. He stared down Scottie Lindsey, and Lindsey walked back to the huddle trying to explain himself. At one point, Alex Olah, who is out with a left foot injury, got up off the bench after a weakly-contested Maryland layup to berate his team.
Then that frustration seemed to turn into hesitancy. "We were a little bit jittery in the first half," Collins said. "We had some uncharacteristic turnovers. I thought we got sped up a little bit." Tre Demps was slow to pull the trigger on his outside shot. The Wildcats' ball movement was nowhere near as crisp as it had been. When the physical side of the game didn't come easily, the mental side became more difficult too. Northwestern had to think before swinging the ball, or knifing into the lane off the dribble, things that came naturally in previous games. The result was more turnovers, and even silly ones like a five-second violation on a backcourt inbounds.
"We had some careless turnovers early," Collins admitted. "And you let Melo and Rasheed get out in the open floor with athletes, the guys they have, it's going to be really tough to stop them."
Northwestern pushed the pace in the second half, and threatened to blow the roof off of Welsh-Ryan and launch a comeback. But every time it probed, Maryland had an answer, on multiple occasions in the form of a late-clock three-pointer.
"They're real good," Collins said. "They have a chance to win the whole thing. They're that good."
Northwestern, of course, isn't on that level yet. But we already knew that. A loss to a top-five team playing at the top of its game is far from disastrous.
"It's an 18-round fight," McIntosh said. "We lost one round. We gotta win the next round." The next time the Wildcats take the court, they won't be up against such a heavyweight.