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Northwestern grits and grinds its way to its most important win of the season

Stifling defense and tremendous work on the glass helped the Wildcats overcome shooting woes to win in Columbus.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBUS, OH — The saying goes “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and that age-old cliché certainly held true for the Northwestern Wildcats on Sunday afternoon, as they gutted out a hard-fought and vital road win over the Ohio State Buckeyes.

The 74-72 win, Northwestern’s first in Columbus since 1977, had very little to do with offensive playmaking and hot shooting, and everything to do with as relentless, disciplined, courageous and complete an effort on the defensive end of the floor and on the glass as the Wildcats have put forth all year.

They started the game at a 4 of 19 clip from the field, hovered around the 30 percent mark for much of the afternoon and finished shooting a full eight percentage points lower than their counterparts. However, the visitors’ 15 offensive rebounds, 17 points off of 13 forced turnovers and 19 made free throws were enough to see them over the edge.

“On a night where we did not shoot well, I loved that we were able as a team to do enough things to win the game,” coach Chris Collins said in his post-game press conference. “I thought our guys from top to bottom all gave us great energy and grit tonight.”

Wildcats center and Ohio native Dererk Pardon’s performance was a microcosm of the team’s hard-nosed, whatever-it-takes display. He missed several good looks both near the basket and from the midrange, shooting 1 of 7 from the field, and let several passes slip through his hands. But Pardon, much like the team as a whole, did not let this deter him from having a net positive impact on the night. He blocked two shots, grabbed four offensive rebounds, and had a direct hand in seven of Northwestern’s 11 second chance points.

“I thought Dererk’s energy was immense,” Collins said. “He was one of our most influential players and did a tremendous job dealing with (Ohio State 7-footer Trevor) Thompson down low. He was really motivated to return home, and I think that showed in his play.”

Another player who epitomized Wildcats’ winning effort was swingman Vic Law. He toiled both around the rim and with his jumper, missing on several good looks en route to a 4-of-13 effort from the field. But the redshirt sophomore made his presence felt with five rebounds; countless altered shots; tremendous defense on every one of Ohio State’s top four scoring perimeter players throughout the course of the afternoon; and most importantly two pressure free throws in the final minute to all but ice the game.

The bench also had a tremendous impact as Northwestern ground and grafted its way to the win. Isiah Brown’s early mistakes were made up for by his fearlessness in big moments on both ends. Skelly struggled from the field overall, but he protected the rim vitally and managed to hit two jumpers in key moments. Even Barret Benson, who played his first meaningful minutes in three games, hit a jumper to ignite his team on a first half spurt.

The Northwestern backcourt of Scottie Lindsey and Bryant McIntosh, a tandem that is looking more and more like one of the conference’s elite units, carried the team through its offensive woes by combining for 39 points, but the real story of the night was the team’s determination as a whole. Every player in purple, regardless of whether they were seeing the ball go through the rim, found a way to make a positive impact on multiple facets of the game, and the sum of those combined efforts was what kept Ohio State and a raucous Buckeye crowd at bay for 40 minutes.

This win, despite the Buckeyes’ now 2-5 record in the Big Ten, was perhaps the biggest of Northwestern’s season. Ohio State has disrupted plenty of Wildcat basketball seasons recently, but this wouldn’t be one of those times. Northwestern showed the NCAA Tournament committee and the college basketball world that they were capable of going into a notoriously hostile environment, facing an immensely talented team playing their best basketball of the season, and coming out with a win despite one of their roughest offensive displays of the season.

The win moves the Wildcats into a share of third place in the conference, and in a very mediocre Big Ten, it could go to great lengths to separate them from the pack of schools toiling around the .500 mark.

Northwestern did not play its best basketball game Sunday by any stretch of the imagination, but the winning effort nonetheless showed — perhaps more than any other — how good this team is. With all the cards of history, environment and program caliber stacked against them, and enduring one of their worst shooting nights of the year on top of that, this team showed that they were still good enough to make the basketball plays necessary to win. This was an afternoon that will most certainly be hard to forget for those making decisions in March, and it will give this Northwestern team tremendous confidence going into a very winnable home encounter against a reeling Nebraska team on Thursday.