It feels like Northwestern plays this type of game all the time. Hang around with a better team for the first half, escape from the fringe of a blowout early in the second, make a push to get a late lead, and then blow said lead for a crushing loss.
That’s what happened to the Wildcats (3-2) on Tuesday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn in the championship of the Legends Classic. Northwestern fell 70-66 to Notre Dame (5-0) in a game in which the Wildcats held a six-point lead with just a few minutes left.
A late turnover by Nathan Taphorn and a 3-of-18 shooting performance from Bryant McIntosh were too much for Northwestern to overcome in a game that featured plenty of positives. Scottie Lindsey led the Wildcats with 17 points, Vic Law added 15 and Dererk Pardon had 6 points, 7 rebounds and a career-high 7 blocks. Despite the late mistake, Taphorn was huge on offense in the second half with 12 points.
Neither team, probably as a function of having played the day before, did much on offense early in this game. The Wildcats, with McIntosh and Law struggling to get into a consistent flow, relied on Lindsey for scoring, though, and he came through.
A day after scoring 16 points in the Wildcats’ win over Texas, Lindsey hit a pair of threes en route to scoring eight consecutive Northwestern points in the middle of the first half. That spurt gave Chris Collins’ team a 14-12 lead at the 14:16 mark.
But then, Northwestern went cold. The Wildcats went almost six minutes without a point as the Fighting Irish used an 11-0 run to regain the lead. After a V.J. Beachem three put Notre Dame up 23-14, the Wildcats were on the ropes and seemed to be on the verge of getting blown out.
They held serve for the next few minutes and once Notre Dame took an 11-point lead, its biggest of the half, Northwestern responded with back-to-back threes from Law and Nathan Taphorn to cut the deficit to 32-27.
That’s kind of how the game went for Northwestern. Every time Notre Dame threatened to run away with it, the Wildcats responded with a big three or an important stop.
A big reason why the Wildcats played well was their three-point shooting. Five different Northwestern plays drilled a triple on Tuesday (the team went 12-for-22), and surprising contributors like Jordan Ash and Taphorn (four threes) joined the party as well. Ash’s three toward the end of the first half put Northwestern within three points of Notre Dame before a trio of Matt Farrell free throws gave the Fighting Irish a 40-34 advantage at the break.
With an 8-2 run out of the intermission, Notre Dame looked — yet again — poised to pull away and take the Legends Classic title. But, once the Wildcats defense locked down and forced Mike Brey’s squad to settle for contested jumpshots, that lead started to dwindle.
A Bonzie Colson jumper with 12:55 left in the game that gave Notre Dame a 55-48 lead preceded another comeback spurt from the Wildcats. On consecutive possessions, Taphorn, whose role was marginalized with the addition of Aaron Falzon last season, knocked down a pair of triples that brought Northwestern within a single point.
Down just 55-54, the Northwestern bench started getting pumped up -- like it did yesterday — as the few Wildcats faithful in Brooklyn got excited.
Notre Dame stemmed the tide with a Steve Vasturia layup and V.J. Beachem free throw before the Wildcats ripped off 10 unanswered points that must have had Doug Collins convulsing in the Barclays Center stands. Lindsey started it off with a layup and Isiah Brown contributed with a pair of free throws but the real big plays were the threes from Taphorn — his fourth of the game — and McIntosh, who struggled all day.
There was still much more basketball to be played, though. Notre Dame responded with a 7-0 run of its own — capped off by a Farrell alley-oop feed to Beachem — to retake the lead, 65-64 with just under three minutes to play.
After Law missed a three that could have given Northwestern the lead right back, Pardon’s sixth block of the game on a Rex Pflueger layup returned possession to the Wildcats. They just couldn’t get a shot to fall, but since Notre Dame couldn’t corral a defensive rebound, Northwestern retained the ball for almost two minutes before a McIntosh floater put his team ahead 66-65.
However, that lead was short-lived. Vasturia missed a top-of-the-key jumper that was rebounded by Pardon, but since the Fighting Irish had multiple fouls to give, the Wildcats had to inbound the ball. Taphorn, with a few timeouts remaining, got the responsibility and threw the ball away. Notably, Collins didn’t take any of his remaining timeouts to set up and inbounds play.
Moments later, Farrell attacked the hoop and made a circus layup over none other than Taphorn to retake the lead. He was fouled too, and after knocking down the free throw, the Wildcats were down 68-66 with 15 seconds to play.
McIntosh missed yet another contested floater on the baseline following a timeout and Notre Dame got the rebound and made the ensuing free throws. The Fighting Irish iced the game away, and Chris Collins’ former college assistant coach got the best of his former player. Notre Dame scored 12 of the game’s final 14 points.
Northwestern next plays on Friday afternoon at home against Bryant.
- Northwestern managed to have a decent offensive performance without any help from Bryant McIntosh. Obviously, you always want your starting point guard to play well, but considering his shot was off and he made a lot of uncharacteristically bad decisions, the Wildcats fared surprisingly well. To be fair, outside of the Big Ten Tournament (or the Big Dance), Northwestern won’t be playing on back-to-back days much this season but the 37 minutes McIntosh played against Texas certainly played a role in his weak showing. He finished the game with seven points on 3-of-18 shooting to go with four assists and four turnovers.
- Dererk Pardon is a much, much better defender than anyone realized. He blocked seven shots against Notre Dame and held V.J. Beachem in check all day. His ability to alter shots both at the rim and on the perimeter — with good contests — is rare in the Big Ten, especially for a sophomore. With each game, he appears to get better physically and look more confident on defense.
- As Vic Law said after the Butler game, moral victories mean nothing. It’s great that Northwestern can stick with good teams like Butler and Notre Dame, but close losses are not what stands out to the Selection Committee. Like in that game at Hinkle, Northwestern failed down the stretch — both offensively and defensively — and it led to another heartbreaking defeat.