There would be no last-second heartbreak this time.
The Wildcats made sure of that. Five days after Butler’s Kamar Baldwin hit a stepback jumper that fed the narrative of Northwestern basketball as close-but-not-quite-there, an angry, energized team took the Barclays Center floor determined not to let another resume-building opportunity slip away.
“This one hurts, no question about it,” coach Chris Collins said after the 70-68 loss at Hinkle Fieldhouse. “I’m not into moral victories. We’re a good team, and we come into these venues now expecting to win.”
In the opening round of the Legends Classic on Monday night, Northwestern did more than just expect to win. It got the job done, and did so in encouraging and convincing fashion. The Wildcats got contributions from all over the roster and outclassed Shaka Smart and the No. 22 Texas Longhorns in a 77-58 win.
“Teams can go two separate ways after a loss like that,” Collins said after the win over the Longhorns. “You can go into a little bit of a tailspin or you can rally together and come back fighting, and there was never a doubt in my mind that our guys were going to keep fighting.”
“That’s a difference between this team and the other ones I’ve played on since I’ve been here,” McIntosh said. “If we lost a close game (in the past), we felt sorry for ourselves. This team, we’re hungry, we think we’re good, and tonight we played exceptionally well.”
Right from the opening tip, Northwestern looked like a team eager to quiet talks that it was just like any previous iteration of the program. When Vic Law threw down a vicious alley-oop to stretch the lead to 8-0, forcing Smart to call a timeout, the entire bench was sent into a frenzy.
As quickly as that momentum was gained, it vanished as Texas used a 19-7 run to retake the lead. It seemed like the hot start was bound to turn into another tight game that Northwestern would find a way to lose.
Except these Wildcats might just be different.
Never falling behind by more than a point, Northwestern went on a 19-1 run that spanned the end of the first half and the beginning of the second and never looked back, cruising to a comfortable statement victory.
“We were fine taking the underdog role,” McIntosh said. “I’m happy we came out and proved everybody wrong. We’re a quality team who can beat anybody on any given night.”
Beyond their resolve and confidence, what made this win so hope-inspiring was the fact that the Wildcats did it with defense, rebounding and offensive balance even without a big game from their leading scorer.
Four players finished in double-digits but Law, the team’s leading scorer in each of its first three games, wasn’t one of them. Law got in early foul trouble and was limited to just 19 minutes in the game. Against a talented and athletic Texas team, Law, coming into the night averaging over 20 points per game, would have to play well, right? Wrong. In his absence, several others stepped up and shined.
McIntosh played his best game of the season, finishing with 20 points and 5 assists. Following a 5-turnover performance against Butler, including one on Northwestern’s final possession, the junior point guard had just one giveaway in 37 minutes as Collins’ primary ballhandler. Facing Smart’s patented “Havoc” full-court press, a scheme that has thoroughly confused and flustered opposing guards for the past half-decade and spurred one Final Four run, McIntosh was under control, smart with the ball and timely in choosing when to pick his spots. Throw in some brilliant finishes in the paint and McIntosh offered a general reminder of why he accrued so much hype this offseason.
“I was just trying to stay patient, not get sped up, not do too much,” McIntosh said. “I knew if we could control the pace of the game it would give us a great opportunity to win.”
To make things even better, his two backcourt teammates continued to prove that they are legitimate scoring options against tough competition.
Scottie Lindsey, who looks like an entirely different player in his third season, was the catalyst early. Lindsey scored the game’s first two buckets on athletic layups and knocked down 3 of 7 looks from beyond the arc overall on his way to 16 points, 13 of which came in the first half.
“I’m really proud of Scottie,” Collins said. “When we recruited him, I really believed he had a chance to be this kind of a player. He, more than anybody in our program, this spring and summer, has taken a new approach in terms of work and leadership. For him to say, ‘You know what? I gotta be a different guy to be successful,’ he did that, and that’s why he’s become the player he’s become.”
Freshman Isiah Brown continued to be a spark off the bench, scoring all 10 of his points in the second half to help put the Longhorns away. His shot selection was still questionable at times, but Brown knocked down a pair of triples and finished twice off the dribble for his third double-digit scoring effort in four career games.
Perhaps no performance was more encouraging, however, than Dererk Pardon’s. The sophomore big man recorded his second career double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds, including six on the offensive glass. Pardon converted his scoring opportunities, and his length and defensive activity were a big reason why Northwestern held Texas to 37 percent shooting and won the rebounding battle 40-31.
Sanjay Lumpkin, Nathan Taphorn and Gavin Skelly were also huge contributors on defense, the boards and even helped on the offensive end. Take, for instance, a key stretch as Northwestern pulled away when Lumpkin twice got out in transition ahead of the Longhorn defenders. On one such opportunity, he knocked down a corner three and on the other converted an easy layup.
“We had great preparation,” Lindsey said. “We knew they were gonna be going in to the bigs, we knew they’re an athletic team, a driving team, and we wanted to get out on the break. We made sure we got back, we made sure we were plugged in all the time and we really played great defense, so that’s how we won.”
Yes, this is only one win over an inexperienced, albeit talented team. With that said, it’s hard to not be optimistic that this performance signals something a little more significant than that. It’s a win that suggests this Northwestern team might be unlike any of its predecessors under Collins.
It’ll get another great chance to prove that on Tuesday night. The Wildcats have an even tougher opponent ready for them in the Legends Classic championship game in Notre Dame, a team that has been to back-to-back Elite Eights. And as good as this win felt, Northwestern isn’t satisfied.
“We didn’t come here for this first game,” McIntosh said. “It was a good first test, but we came here with the mindset that we were going to win a championship.”
With a balanced and composed effort like tonight, the Wildcats will certainly have a shot against one of the nation’s premier programs.