EVANSTON — For the first time in what probably seemed like forever, Northwestern's bench couldn't contain itself. They smiled and bounced. They clapped and yelled and slung imaginary three-point arrows from imaginary three-point bows into Welsh-Ryan Arena's ceiling. They paraded onto the court to greet their teammates out on the floor every time Minnesota head coach Richard Pitino was forced to call a timeout.
On Pitino's bench, there were no claps or yells or arrows. It was stoic and dejected. Pitino even gave up on standing as he resigned to his spot on the bench as his team fell further and further behind Northwestern in the second half. Coming into Thursday night, one team would have its losing streak snapped. And the Wildcats' five-game skid paled in comparison to the Gophers' 11-straight losses.
With each Wildcat swish, that pent up anger and frustration that had built over Northwestern's five-game losing streak released bit by bit. As the game wore on, smiles replaced frowns and claps and high-fives replaced shoulder shrugs and thrown towels as Northwestern (16-8, 4-7 Big Ten) routed Minnesota (6-17, 0-11), 82-58.
That energy persisted throughout the contest. It began early in the first half when Northwestern bolted out to a 13-2 lead. The ball whipped around the perimeter and into the post, always searching for, and often finding, the best possible shot. And it didn't end even as the Wildcats ran away with the game.
With 4:30 left in the game, for example, and his team leading 76-47, Collins huddled with his team. He didn't sit and smile. Instead, he got in a defense stance and started mimicking what he wanted his players to look like defensively, even bumping into a surprised Sanjay Lumpkin. The biggest issue with that scene, is that the players could barely hear Collins. His voice was completely shot by game's end.
"It's funny," Tre Demps said after the game. "He still tries [to yell]. Even at the end of the game he was still on us about keeping habits... He still finds a way to get his voice out."
Collins's voice increased its volume this week, Demps and Bryant McIntosh said, as practice became more intense after the Wildcats fifth-straight loss came against No. 5 Iowa on Sunday.
"Anytime you go through a tough stretch and get beaten down and hammered a few times like we did, it affects you," Collins said in his cracking, hoarse voice. "It affects everybody. You start questioning your confidence and how good you are. What we really tried to focus on is our whole body of work. We're not the team that lost to four-straight top 20 teams, three of them on the road. We're the team that has 15 wins. We tried to focus on that. I thought it kind of reenergized us a bit. All we talked about was getting that 16th win and I thought all our guys did a great job of carrying that out tonight."
Demps and McIntosh, Northwestern's unquestioned leaders, played the best they have all year, combining for 43 points on 55.6 percent shooting. But it was really McIntosh, Demps said, that took over from an emotional standpoint in recent days.
"We established that only one guy talks in the huddle and B-Mac is our leader and he's the guy we're going to follow behind," Demps said.
McIntosh, who passed Tim Doyle for the Northwestern record for assists in a season Thursday night, actively tried to push the pace against Minnesota. He and Demps ran the show almost to perfection, combining for just two turnovers despite playing all but six combined minutes.
The stretch that really blew open the game began with a McIntosh steal and layup with 19:26 left in the contest to put Northwestern up 40-23. Including that bucket, McIntosh and Demps scored 21 of Northwestern's next 23 points over an eight-minute stretch that saw the Wildcats' lead balloon to 27.
"Whenever a team's two best players are playing well, that carries over to the rest of the guys," Collins said.
Aaron Falzon, in particular, got Northwestern going early. He had 8 of his 10 points within the first four minutes of the game as he nailed two threes and four free throws early on. Fellow freshman Dererk Pardon earned his first career start and brought the energy Collins wanted from him in the first half. Scottie Lindsey and Alex Olah added six points each off the bench. Seldom used forward Gavin Skelly even made the most of his 13 minutes making both of his shots, gabbing 5 rebounds and collecting 4 fouls.
Now, the issue turns to where Northwestern slots in among the Big Ten's middle tier. It's clear the Wildcats were outclassed by the top of the conference and can handle the bottom of the barrel. But it's against teams such as Ohio State (Northwestern's next opponent on Feb. 9), where the Wildcats can make their mark as the regular season winds down. As long as those high fives don't turn back into shoulder shrugs and, more importantly, makes don't turn into misses, Northwestern will have a shot to prove it's more than what its five-game skid showed.