EVANSTON -- After the final buzzer sounded and Northwestern and Nebraska met at halfcourt to shake hands, Alex Olah and Tre Demps made their way over to the Northwestern student section. Smiles on their faces, they paraded along the front row, high-fiving and thanking the students who had supported them throughout their college careers.
The two seniors combined for 36 points in their final game at Welsh-Ryan Arena, leading Northwestern to a 65-54 victory over Nebraska (14-17, 6-12 Big Ten). After a slow start following an emotional Senior Day ceremony, the Wildcats (20-11, 8-10) used an extended 25-4 run from about the 13-minute mark in the first half to the 3-minute mark to separate themselves from the Cornhuskers en route to a 37-22 halftime lead. Demps and Olah catalyzed the run, combining for 16 points over the roughly 10-minute stretch.
Northwestern, again, continued its momentum into the start of the second-half, pushing the lead to 19 with just two-and-a-half minutes gone. Then, Nebraska kept making mini runs as the Wildcats saw their lead dwindle down to just six, 55-49, with 4:03 left.
But the Wildcats held off the charging Cornhuskers long enough to secure their eighth conference win, thanks to more clutch play from Olah and key plays from Bryant McIntosh.
Olah finished the contest with a team-high 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting to go along with 8 rebounds and 2 blocks in 25 minutes. Demps added 17 points on a 7-of-18 line from the field.
It's fitting that the two veterans, both four-year contributors dating back to Bill Carmody's final season in Evanston, pushed Northwestern to its victory in the regular season finale. Although neither was able to lead Northwestern to its first NCAA Tournament appearance (barring a miracle run in the Big Ten tournament), the win over Nebraska marked the Wildcats' first 20-win regular season in program history. It also kept the team's chances at an NIT berth alive. More immediately, though, it secured Northwestern the ninth seed in the conference tournament and a date with eighth-seeded Michigan in the second round Thursday at 11 a.m. CT.
A 20-win season
Despite the notably weak non-conference schedule that inflated the Wildcats' 2015-16 win total, garnering a program-first 20-win campaign is nothing to scoff at. While this team, statistically, is not as good as some of Northwestern's past squads in the late 2000s, the 20-win benchmark will be a point of pride for Collins and his staff as they continue to build the program's national profile.
The Big Ten Tournament
Northwestern will try to at least duplicate what the women's team did in their conference tournament last week, upsetting multiple teams en route to an unprecedented run to the semifinals as a 12 seed. The ninth-seed ensured the Wildcats would have a bye, which saves the team's legs at least a bit if they are to go on a run in Indianapolis. They also matchup fairly well with Michigan, the eight-seed and their second-round opponents. Northwestern lost in Ann Arbor 72-63 in February after leading for a majority of the contest, and the Wolverines don't have the type of athletes that usually overwhelm Northwestern with their speed and length. If the Wildcats are able to pull off the upset, they'd meet top seed Indiana in round three.
For most of the season, Northwestern's scoring load has been shouldered by Demps and Bryant McIntosh, who finished with 8 points and 7 assists in the win over Nebraska. But, since Olah has gotten healthy since coming back from a stress fracture in his foot, the Wildcats center has been on a role. Heading into the postseason, Olah has scored in double figures in six of the team's final seven contests. He allows Northwestern's offense to be a bit less perimeter-oriented and provides an avenue for the Wildcats to get some easier paint touches. Defensively, he's finally gotten his wind back and is moving a lot better patrolling the lane in Northwestern's funky, switching matchup-zone.