Penn State has been a pesky foe for Northwestern lately, but on Thursday night at the Bryce Jordan Center, Pat Chambers' team was no match for the Wildcats as Northwestern (19-11 overall, 7-10 Big Ten) stomped the Nittany Lions (15-15, 6-11) by a score of 71-61. Tre Demps led the Wildcats with 23 points while senior Brandon Taylor scored 17 to pace the Nittany Lions.
The Wildcats, who crushed Rutgers 98-59 on Saturday in Evanston, came out with a ton of energy and built a double-digit lead in the first half. It felt like a game Northwestern would win easily, like it did against the Scarlet Knights, but pressure from the Nittany Lions baffled the Wildcats' offense and allowed Penn State to hang around late into the second half.
Problems that have plagued Chris Collins' team all season, such as turnovers and lack of ball movement, reared their ugly heads in the second half to Penn State's advantage. But, in the end, Northwestern was able to hold it together and make a bunch of free throws down the stretch.
The Wildcats got off to a hot start offensively, hitting their first 5 field goals (3 from beyond the arc) to build an early 13-8 lead. When Penn State beat Northwestern 71-62 in Evanston back in January, the Wildcats missed their first 17 three-point attempts so it's safe to say that getting off to a hot start was a point of emphasis.
Scoring was very balanced for Northwestern in the opening half, as seven different Wildcats scored. But, it was mostly Tre Demps' show, as the senior scored 19 first-half points on just 11 shots (3-of-5 from three). He absolutely dominated the first 20 minutes, from both beyond the arc or at the rim, and he had multiple beautiful drives to the rim that resulted in either easy layups (and even a dunk).
That dunk, at the 6:57 mark of the first half, put Northwestern up 28-17 and was one of his strongest moves to the hoop this season. Even outside of Demps, everything just seemed to work right for Northwestern early on, as the Wildcats went up 42-27 into the intermission on the strength of a 14-3 run that was capped by a buzzer-beating Bryant McIntosh floater.
In the first half, the Wildcats went 6-of-11 from three (even Gavin Skelly made one) and used their zone defense to befuddle a Penn State team that couldn't get much going offensively. The Nittany Lions keep hoisting threes, some more contested than others, but didn't get into a rhythm and made Northwestern's job a lot easier.
On their second possession after the break, after a Demps steal, the senior drove into the key and found Aaron Falzon for a wide open three that continued what the Wildcats started in the first half. A moment later, another steal, this by Bryant McIntosh, led to a fastbreak layup that put Northwestern ahead 47-27 just 3:06 into the second half.
While the Nittany Lions would cut the deficit to 14 a few minutes later and kept hanging around, most of their comeback efforts were undermined by bad turnovers or defensive lapses. After committing just 5 first-half turnovers, Penn State made 5 miscues in the first seven minutes after the intermission alone.
But, a 17-3 run midway through the half cut the Wildcats' lead to 53-48. It was the result of Northwestern settling for contested threes early in the shot clock and the Nittany Lions forcing turnovers and getting out on the break. That opened up their offense a bit and led to some in-rhythm threes and shots at the rim in areas vacated by out-of-position Wildcats.
A Sanjay Lumpkin layup off an alley-oop feed from Olah stopped the bleeding, but it took Demps' first points of the second half—on a three-point play—to rebuild a cushion for the road team. That put Northwestern up 58-51 with 5 minutes to play. Later, with less than 2 minutes left, a McIntosh layup sealed this one away with the Wildcats ahead by 11.
Northwestern finishes up its regular season Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Also on Sunday, Penn State hosts Illinois in the finale for both teams.
Here are some other takeaways from the game:
1. Tre Demps was extremely aggressive early
Since his 4-point, 2-for-14 from the field performance against Michigan State, Demps has scored 14 or more points in all 8 games. His efficiency across the board has gone up after that game, which was so bad for the senior that it prompted Chris Collins to vaguely call him out in the post-game press conference.
Clearly it worked, as Demps was incredible in the first half. Not only was he making his usual perimeter shots, but he took some Penn State defenders off the dribble in order to get to the hoop. Things cooled off significantly for him after the break as he, like his teammates, started settling for low-percentage shots but his early scoring put a jolt into Northwestern that resulted in the big halftime lead.
2. Alex Olah's passing got things going
Olah was spot-on from a passing perspective Thursday, notching 4 first-half assists and 5 in total. Right off the bat, Chris Collins ran his zone-breaking offense through him at the top of the paint and he was rewarded, as Olah had some great finds that got his teammates open shots at the rim and on the perimeter.
It's really hard to defend a guy like Olah, who has undeniable offensive ability, but it's near impossible when he's making smart passes, especially on a team that's hitting its threes. For most of the season, Northwestern's shooting struggles have allowed opposing teams to get away with leaving three-point marksmen open and have clogged up the lane. However, tonight the threes were falling, which opened up the painted area for backcuts and uncontested layups.
3. Dererk Pardon and Gavin Skelly served their purpose
Neither of Northwestern's big men made any highlight plays or put up any big stats on Thursday night, but they both added significant value to a true "team" win. Pardon, who scored 8 points on 3-of-4 shooting, had a big layup off an offensive rebound in the second half and had some nice finishes at the rim against much taller defenders while Skelly (8 points and 5 rebounds) hit a top-of-the-key three early on and cleaned up the boards well. But the most important thing they both did? They combined to go 7-of-8 at the free throw line. For such a poor free throw shooting team, that's huge.