Northwestern, as it has been time and time again in Big Ten play, was in free fall.
Three minutes into the second half, the Wildcats had built a 20-point lead at Penn State, but over the next 11 minutes, the Nittany Lions cut that lead down to 4.
Head coach Chris Collins went with his "veteran" lineup for most of that stretch, his starting five of sophomore Bryant McIntosh and senior Tre Demps as guards, junior Sanjay Lumpkin and freshman Aaron Falzon as forwards and senior Alex Olah in the middle.
Conventional wisdom would say that the experience and leadership usually shown by veteran players would calm his team and ease their nerves. If Northwestern had any hope of competing in this year's NIT, they had to beat Penn State on the road, and it was slipping away.
But with about six minutes left and the game now within just two possessions at 55-51, Collins subbed in, on back-to-back dead balls, underclassmen for upperclassmen. Sophomore Gavin Skelly entered for Lumpkin and freshman Dererk Pardon for Olah.
As soon as the two Ohio-natives entered the game, something seemed to change for Northwestern. The Wildcats' offense had ground to a halt in recent minutes, becoming predictable and one-dimensional. Their defense struggled to get to shooters in the same way it had in the first half. They played slow, tentative and, frankly, nervous.
Clichés label calmness and poise as solvents for nervous basketball; a veteran ball-handler will takeover and have this magical effect over his teammates.
Collins had tried that before. He tried it in late losses at Maryland, Ohio State and Michigan, all games in which Northwestern led but could not close out.
Thursday, in a less-conventional manner, Collins opted to go with the two players on his bench who might be the polar opposites of "calmness and poise." His team needed energy to bring it out of its slump, and Skelly and Pardon provided that galvanizing impact with their infectious energy down the stretch of the Wildcats' 71-61 victory.
With those two players on the floor together, Northwestern ran away from Penn State. Skelly, especially, was all over the floor. In those final six or so minutes, he scored 5 points on 5-of-6 shooting from the free throw line, grabbed an offensive and defense rebound and added a block and a steal.
Skelly's emergence over the past eight games has been somewhat of a small-scale revelation for Northwestern. In the first nine games of conference play, Skelly saw over 10 minutes of action only once. In this recent stretch of eight games, he's averaged 17 minutes per contest and the Wildcats, although playing an easier schedule, have gone 4-4 since a 4-6 start. And, over these last four weeks, Skelly has taken more and more minutes away from Lumpkin, chiefly because of the offensive skillset he brings that the junior does not.
The 6-foot-8 Skelly, who takes pride in saying he was recruited because of his energetic play, has been more than a hard-nosed energy guy of late. The sophomore has developed a three-point shot that keeps defenses honest when he plays on the wing. In his last four games, Skelly has hit 3 of 4 from the outside, which often ends up giving Northwestern a few more buckets over the course of the game due to his ability to take advantage when defenders lunge at him on the perimeter with smart, accurate passes.
Against Purdue, Skelly drained an open three on just his second possession of the game. By the end of the first half, he collected these two assists to Olah and Pardon:
On both plays, defenders launch at Skelly to guard against the three-point shot. Defenders have to respect him out there now after he's shown he's been willing and able to make teams pay for leaving him open. His height allows him to see over the top of the defense and he has a knack for finding players from the top of the key and the high post. The ability to run actions through Skelly forces opponents to account for both McIntosh and Demps off the ball, while also having to guard against big men diving to the hole.
But don't get the wrong idea. Collins isn't using Skelly for his finesse or his perimeter play. And Skelly, who smiles at the notion of being called a "stretch four," wouldn't ever want it that way.
"I definitely see myself more as a power forward for sure," Skelly said ahead of a recent practice, "but being able to shoot the three definitely adds versatility to our team, absolutely. If I'm able to hit that shot, it'll definitely make the defense have to adjust."
Rather, Skelly hopes to model his game after the ultra-skilled forward Christian Laettner, which is fitting, really. In a lot of ways, Skelly mirrors Laettner from an appearance perspective, at least.
But, who are we kidding.
The real reason Skelly might come to resemble some aspects of Laettner is because of how his energetic and physical style of play may endear him to opposing crowds by the end of his time in Evanston.
"A lot of people hated that guy through college, so I hope that's not the case," he said, laughing.