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Northwestern’s seniors lead the Wildcats to victory over Dayton

Other players may get the hype, but Sanjay Lumpkin and Nathan Taphorn blossomed under the bright lights of the United Center.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern vs Dayton Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

When Northwestern’s starting lineup is announced, the last player to be introduced isn’t Bryant McIntosh—the face of the program’s #BMAC4THEDIME campaign—or Vic Law—the team’s leading scorer. It’s Sanjay Lumpkin.

When the Wildcats are in need of an offensive spark off the bench, Chris Collins doesn’t choose uber-aggressive Isiah Brown or the athletic Gavin Skelly, his best passing big man. He might not even choose whichever one of Scottie Lindsey, Vic Law or Sanjay Lumpkin is sitting. Often, he’ll choose Nathan Taphorn.

It should be no surprise that with Northwestern taking on Dayton at the United Center, the team’s two seniors stepped up in the Wildcats’ biggest game of the season. Lumpkin led the team in scoring and rebounding, with 14 in both categories, while Taphorn scored 11 points off the bench, the most of any reserve on either team.

“Things were clicking on all cylinders for us, and I was just trying to be aggressive on the glass and collect as many rebounds as I could,” Lumpkin said. “We played a great first half.”

Their production has been a boon for the team all year. Lumpkin is averaging career-highs across the board, providing hustle and versatility on defense, efficiency on offense and grit on the glass. Taphorn is enjoying similar success, leading the team in three-point percentage and bringing a scoring boost whenever he enters the game.

On Saturday, both were key to Northwestern’s huge victory over the Flyers. Lumpkin nearly recorded a double-double in the first half. All eight of his points were the result of attacking the basket; he made three layups and got fouled once, making both free throws. He also rebounded 37.5 percent of Dayton’s misses in the first 20 minutes. His 11 total first-half rebounds equaled Dayton’s 11 defensive rebounds over the same time span.

“He was awesome,” Collins said of Lumpkin after the game. “His rebounding, his defense, his offense, you know, he was the guy. He sets the tone for us and he did that in a big way.”

Taphorn’s first half was impactful, too. He scored eight points, making two three-pointers and converting a layup off of an offensive rebound. With Aaron Falzon out for the season, the onus is on Taphorn to support Law and Scottie Lindsey on the wing when he comes off the bench. He’s shooting 60 percent on the season and over 53 percent from downtown.

“He can be a real weapon for us coming off the bench,” Collins said after Taphorn scored a career-high 18 points against New Orleans. “He’s a big part of what we’re doing, especially now that we’re down a couple guys.”

As the Wildcats conclude their non-conference schedule and look ahead to Big Ten play, it’s comforting to know the team’s two most-experienced players are thriving now more than ever. Two guys who were thought by many to be replaceable with next year being “The Year” led the charge in Northwestern’s biggest game thus far this season, helping boost the hopes of this year being “The Year.” With a signature win over a perennial NCAA Tournament team, Northwestern has proven its growth as a program in leaps and bounds since its two seniors joined the team.

“In years past, this was a game that maybe we would have given up that lead in the second half, and we maybe wouldn’t have won that game, wouldn’t have made those tough plays,” Lumpkin said. “This is a great step in the right direction for us.”