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Win over Dayton will pay dividends down the road

The Wildcats needed this one. And they got it.

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

Bryant McIntosh, like he so often does, knifed his way into the lane and calmly hit a floater over a taller defender. A profoundly Dayton-heavy crowd fell silent. The basket gave Northwestern an 11-0 lead and head coach Archie Miller had seen enough. He called timeout.

Led by a well-distributed scoring barrage, Northwestern effectively went off in the first half. Miller’s timeout proved futile as he watched the Wildcats steadily extend its lead from 11 points to 24. Mired in a treacherous 4-for-28 first half shooting slump, Dayton was stuck at the 12-point mark for over nine minutes as they watched its deficit grow. Northwestern took advantage to the tune of a 40-17 lead at half.

Scottie Lindsey, Sanjay Lumpkin, and Nate Taphorn all had eight points at the break, McIntosh added six. It was the most impressive half Northwestern has played all season; Chris Collins later said it was the most impressive half Northwestern has played in his tenure

The 23-point lead wasn’t necessarily too good to be true, but rather Dayton is too good to continue to shoot at a percentage dangerously close to single digits.

“You knew there was gonna be some sort of a run,” said Chris Collins. “I knew they weren’t just gonna lay down.”

That run came just under the 10-minute mark in the second half, as Dayton embarked on a 14-0 effort that cut the lead to just nine points as Northwestern ran into a drought of its own. Dayton clawed its way into the game on the back of senior guard Scoochie Smith and his game-high 18 points, but it was just too little too late. Northwestern was able to close out the game at the free-throw line and escape the United Center with the victory.

“I really thought we got fatigued,” said Collins. “I thought we expended a lot of energy. Every dead ball I saw guys on their knees. I thought their quickness and athleticism wore us down.”

With essentially a seven-man rotation down the stretch, fatigue seems like almost a given especially against a battle-tested, veteran Dayton team. Chicago natives Kyle Davis and Kendall Pollard, as well as Smith, were all key contributors on the team that danced its way to the Elite Eight three years ago. The Flyers have made three consecutive NCAA tournaments, as Archie Miller’s wife taught us.

But we learned a lot about this Northwestern team tonight, as well. We saw what was once a 24-point lead cut to just three. We saw what prompted Chicago Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein to say, for the first time, that Northwestern is a tournament team. We ultimately saw Northwestern gut out a win against an RPI top 30 team (29).

On March 12, as Selection Sunday unfolds and the “selection committee” is scrutinizing résumés, it doesn’t come down to how you got the win, but rather about whether you got the win. Saturday night, Northwestern’s resilience was tested late in the second half, and the Wildcats walked away from the United Center victorious. That is going to pay huge dividends.

Thirty-three seconds are left in a tie game at Hinkie Fieldhouse and Northwestern is set to take the final shot when Butler guard Kamar Baldwin strips Bryant McIntosh. 30 seconds later, Baldwin is pulling up for the game winning jumper and Hinkie is celebrating a two-point victory.

Just eight days later, the Wildcats are once again at an advantage, this time at the Barclays Center in the Legends Classic Championship. With 20 seconds left and a one-point lead, all Northwestern has to do is follow the four-step process that has so often plagued them: inbound the ball, get fouled, head to the line, and make your free throws. Step one proved too costly.

That’s what makes this win so sweet for Chris Collins and his players. Saturday night showed Northwestern’s growth. In the first half, Northwestern played its best basketball of the year. And in crunch time when Dayton made its inevitable run, the Wildcats did not buckle under the weight of a 77-year NCAA Tournament drought. Yes, of course there are things that Northwestern needs to work on: inbounding the ball and breaking the press should be priorities this week in practice. The second half issues, namely fatigue and late game situations, can be and will be fixed. More importantly, at its core, this is a different Northwestern team heading into the final stretch of its non-conference schedule than the one we saw at the beginning of the year. The players echoed these sentiments.

“It just shows the growth of this team,” said Sanjay Lumpkin. “A lot of guys stepped up, made big free throws down the stretch. This is a great step in the right direction.”

“We knew they were gonna make their push at the end,” Vic Law added. “In games like this last year, we weren’t as mentally tough. We learned from our mistakes.”

So what does this win mean for Northwestern going forward? Well, first and foremost the Wildcats need to take care of IUPUI and Houston Baptist to wrap up its non-conference schedule 11-2. Big Ten play starts in just 10 days, and for Chris Collins’ group, that just became a lot more exciting. For the first time since maybe ever, Northwestern’s résumé will look really good heading into its conference slate.

Last season, Michigan snuck into the NCAA Tournament with a regular season record of 20-11, 10-8 in Big Ten play. It was two wins in the Big Ten Tournament that helped them secure that final spot. Northwestern will begin conference play in better position than the Wolverines were last year. It seems surreal to say, but after Saturday night, the Wildcats have put themselves in a very achievable position of reaching the NCAA Tournament. You have to think any combination of 10-8 will put Northwestern in the field of 64, and 9-9 with wins in the conference tournament should give them a good shot as well. The Wildcats have to find a way to get that ever-elusive signature win. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to do so.

Northwestern and Dayton went right down to the wire at the State Farm Chicago Legends on Saturday night. The game ended fittingly by just one possession, because dare I say, right now, these are two tournament-caliber teams destined for March. The NCAA Tournament has been an afterthought for Northwestern for four seasons. Now it’s very much within the realm of reality.