COLLEGE PARK, Md. — My desk shook. It vibrated with an attention-grabbing intensity. On a chilly Tuesday night in Maryland, a giant was waking up, forcefully making its presence known. Maryland basketball wanted no part of the nonsense that upstart Northwestern had been spewing for the better part of a first half, and it was taking action.
The desk, behind one basket at the Xfinity Center, had University of Maryland students to thank for its trembling. Still on winter break, those students had come to watch their Terrapins beat Northwestern in a basketball game, and they had come in a subdued mood. They were relaxed. They wanted to remain so. But early on, it became clear that Northwestern wouldn't let them. The Wildcats made them doubt when they didn't want to. But when Maryland guard Melo Trimble capped off an 8-0 Terrapins run late in the first half with a three, the doubt ebbed away. And when Trimble sliced to the rim and finished for two points early in the second half, pushing his team's lead to 39-31 and forcing Northwestern coach Chris Collins to take a timeout, the doubt turned to excitement, to assurance, and seemingly to victory.
The inevitable was occurring. Of course it was.
But then something weird happened. Then the inevitable was no longer occurring. It was reversing course.
Bryant McIntosh found Aaron Falzon for a three-pointer out of the timeout. The Wildcats forced two turnovers. Tre Demps hit a jumper. McIntosh followed suit on the next possession. Northwestern was back within 1.
"We talked the last couple days about the effort and the fight that you need to play with in this league if you want to have any chance to be successful," Collins said after the game. "For us to come in here and battle the way we did, I'm proud."
Collins' team fought alright. And then it continued to do so, and continued to do so. Maryland was taken aback.
Last year in College Park, Northwestern played a near-perfect game, but wilted late, and lost on a Dez Wells buzzer-beater. Recovery wasn't an option, only collapse. Earlier this year against North Carolina, the Wildcats simply couldn't recover. They couldn't measure up to the Tar Heels when they made their late-first-half, early-second-half charge.
Tuesday night, the Terrapins made that charge. And Northwestern retaliated.
Perhaps most unexpectedly, Northwestern did so without two of its 'big three,' if they can even be called that anymore. Senior center Alex Olah looked out of sync in his second game back from a foot injury, and did not score on 5 field goal attempts. Senior guard Tre Demps remains mired in an unforeseen funk. He forced shots, and couldn't make many of his open ones. He shot 0 for 6 from deep.
Other Wildcats picked up the slack. Joey van Zegeren and Dererk Pardon gave Maryland's vaunted frontcourt everything it could handle. Freshman Aaron Falzon led Northwestern in scoring. Sanjay Lumpkin made his trademark energy plays. The four combined for 13 of the team's 16 offensive rebounds.
It was Demps who was the catalyst though when Northwestern embarked on its comeback. The senior guard hadn't scored over the game's first 25 minutes, but knocked in three-straight field goals. "I thought I had it going a little bit," Demps said. His third two-pointer gave Northwestern a stunning 45-43 lead with 7:41 remaining
"But they do a good job game-planning, that's why they're one of the best teams in America," Demps continued. "They're so big. They have NBA-type size down there. Once you get past one guy, you have another seven-footer flying at you."
Due in part to that size, Northwestern faltered down the stretch on the offensive end. It relinquished a 47-43 lead. Demps missed his next 7 shots. McIntosh turned the ball over 3 times in the final 8 minutes.
But the Wildcats dug in. After a Jake Layman three gave Maryland a 1-point lead with 4:43 remaining, Northwestern held the hosts scoreless all the way through to the final buzzer, sending the game to overtime at 48-48.
"We wanted to try to protect the paint," Collins said of his team's defensive performance. "Last game [against Maryland], Rasheed [Sulaimon] and Melo just diced us with their penetration, and they got in the open floor a lot, which led to open threes. [Tuesday], we were able to get back and set our defense."
The Wildcats' "Chameleon" defense was effective most of the game. It held Sulaimon without a field goal, and for the most part contained Jake Layman. Van Zegeren and Pardon kept Diamond Stone until late on.
"We did a really good job of locking in the ball screens until the end," Demps said. "Obviously Trimble is great, but we did a better job boxing out and not allowing second-chance points and finding their key guys."
In overtime though, Trimble took over. He converted a three-point play, then expertly dished to Robert Carter and to Stone for layups. Maryland pulled away in the extra period.
But it had also pulled away earlier, just as UNC had two months earlier. The Tar Heels, the elite team on the first half of Northwestern's schedule, buried Northwestern with an early-second-half run. Maryland tried to do the same. But it couldn't.
Whether or not that's progress can be debated. But Tuesday's game brought a familiar feeling — familiar because a certain situation brought expectation of an equally familiar result. Tuesday, that result didn't come. Of course, it did in the end. But Northwestern initially repressed that feeling that the game was slipping away.
Tuesday's 62-56 overtime loss felt like less of a moral victory than last year's close losses to superior teams though. "We've won a number of these games this year," Collins said. "We've won three in overtime. When it's there to be had, you want to try to make the plays to win."
With aspirations and expectations heightened in Collins' third go-around, there's more of a sense of missed opportunity. Playing a top-10 team close on the road is an accomplishment. But Northwestern could've had that résumé-defining win. Both sides of the story are now relevant.
"We're a building program," Collins said. "We're trying to garner respect. These are the kind of games you gotta be in."
But then he continued. "And then you gotta find a way to win 'em."