EVANSTON — The time had come. The time that Northwestern basketball fans have come to fear. The time when muscles tighten up, seats start to feel uncomfortable, and nervousness sets in.
Northwestern had played one of its most complete first halves of the season Sunday against Nebraska. Senior day emotions weren't a problem. Tre Demps and Alex Olah had scored 20 of the team's 37 points, and the Wildcats led the Cornhuskers by 15. It was everything senior day should be. It was celebratory; it was comfortable; it was impressive.
And then that time came. Just as it had at Penn State on Thursday after Northwestern held a 20-point lead. Just as it had in losses at Ohio State and Michigan.
"Their pressure got into our legs a little bit," head coach Chris Collins said. "I thought we got a little winded. They made a run. We looked a little tired."
But as the Wildcats did in Happy Valley only three days earlier, they withstood their own collapse.
"Ohio State and Michigan were the two that really stung us the most," Collins said. "We felt like we outplayed those two teams, and we didn't finish the deal. To be able to have these last two games where we did finish the deal, hopefully that's something we'll carry with us."
With a lead, previously 19 and now dwindling at 5, Northwestern needed a bucket. Nebraska pressured the Wildcats into mistakes as thoughts of a collapse crept in. But Alex Olah's mid-range jumper with 3 minutes left halted Nebraska's charge, and sent the Wildcats to a program-record 20th regular season win.
Olah, whose family had flown to the U.S. for the first time to watch him play on senior day, led Northwestern with 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Neither he nor Collins knew how the big Romanian did it.
"I don't know how I kept it in," Olah said. "I was really emotional. I tried not to think about it the whole day... There were times when I was thinking, 'Man, I'm going to walk on the court with my family' — 'No, don't think about it.' Because I'll tear up and stuff."
Collins was surprised Olah was able to suppress those thoughts too. "I was worried to death, man," he said. "Put yourself in Alex Olah's shoes. He's got his parents and his brother here who have never seen him play live college basketball, they've never been to the United States. He's an emotional guy. He's a loving guy. I just couldn't imagine what I'd feel like, how anxious, how nervous, how excited. For him to come out and go for 19 and 8, absolutely unbelievable. I didn't expect that at all. I expected us to have to uplift him early. And it was the opposite. He and Tre got us off to a great start."
The Wildcats got good complementary performances from role players, but it was Olah and Demps who locked up the win in their final game at Welsh-Ryan. Demps, whose wife is due March 14, added 17 points, meaning the two seniors combined for over 55 percent of the Wildcats' scoring. In the midst of Nebraska's run, Collins went to Olah off a set play for a bucket to stem the tide. Demps then hung in the air, double-clutched, and drained a 10-foot-jumper with a defender obstructing his view of the rim.
"The seniors were fantastic," Collins said. "They're a part of a core that will always be very special to me. When I first came in here as a rookie coach who had never called a timeout, never made a sub... for those guys, along with Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Sanjay to really believe in me gave me a lot of inspiration."
The win gives the Wildcats a date with 8th-seeded Michigan in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday. It also was Northwestern's eighth conference win, which, according to Demps, is another sign of progress for the program.
"It's always bigger than yourself," Demps said of finishing his last season on a high note. "You want to leave momentum for the program. In my opinion, there's probably only one team from Penn State, Illinois, Nebraska and us to emerge and take that next step as a program. To win those last three games put us in a great position to be that team."