EVANSTON — With a strong student showing and a palpable NCAA Tournament buzz filling Welsh-Ryan Arena, the Northwestern Wildcats (18-4, 7-2 Big Ten) lived up to the hype, beating the injury-plagued Indiana Hoosiers (14-8, 4-5) in front of a raucous crowd, 68-55.
Initially, it seemed as if the atmosphere was a little too much for the Wildcats, who settled for too many in the opening minutes and couldn’t hang with Thomas Bryant. The Indiana big man scored the game’s first points, on a three, and bullied Northwestern’s front-line early on with a putback shortly thereafter.
The Wildcats missed their first seven shots (four of which were from beyond the arc) as Indiana took a 10-1 lead, quieting a raucous, sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena.
But, once they started to attack the rim and take advantage of the absence of James Blackmon and OG Anunoby — both out with injuries — the Wildcats started to score in bunches.
Bryant McIntosh got things going with a nice feed to a cutting Sanjay Lumpkin for a layup that kickstarted a 20-2 Northwestern run and completely swung the first half story from that of a sluggish start to an energized and inspired one. Scottie Lindsey and McIntosh followed with floaters and, a few minutes later, the Wildcats took their first lead on another McIntosh lay-in.
What was the most impressive aspect of Northwestern’s opening 20 minutes, though, was the defensive intensity. The Wildcats forced 10 Indiana turnovers in the first half — including seven in a row at one point — many of which were turned directly into points.
Right after the second McIntosh floater, Lumpkin intercepted an errant Robert Johnson in-bounds pass and threw down a big dunk at the other end, sending the student section into a frenzy.
When a Nathan Taphorn triple — off another McIntosh assist — put Northwestern ahead 19-12, Tom Crean had to call a timeout just to stop the bleeding. Welsh-Ryan sounded like a public airing of 77-year-old grievances.
A Devonte Green three ended the run, but the damage was already done, and the Wildcats kept the pressure up until the intermission. Although the three-pointers weren’t falling and a not-fully healthy Lindsey struggled with foul trouble, Northwestern put together a strong half and led 35-23.
The only Hoosier who even made a marginal impact offensively was Bryant, who was effective both inside and out. He had 11 points on 4 of 8 shooting at the break; no other Indiana player had more than three. Conversely, Northwestern featured six players with at least four points, led by McIntosh, with 11 points, five assists and no turnovers.
Bryant also opened the scoring in the second half, with a layup — he missed the free throw — against Barret Benson. Benson had entered for Dererk Pardon, who committed his third foul a few moments before.
Much like in the first, it didn’t lead to much else for the Hoosiers, as Lumpkin answered the next time down the floor with a three to keep the Wildcats’ lead at 13. Lumpkin has now made a triple in four consecutive games, the longest such stretch of his career.
Even as Northwestern built a 16-point lead following a pair of McIntosh free throws at the 15:11 mark, Indiana was able to hang around. There was even some scattered “Let’s Go Hoosiers” chants in the upper level of Welsh-Ryan around the time Zach McRoberts — brother of NBA player Josh — hit a three to cut the Indiana deficit to 12.
But the dismal Hoosier shooting prevented them from making a serious comeback attempt. Outside of Bryant, no one could get anything going. Robert Johnson, Devonte Green, Josh Newkirk and Juwan Morgan combined to score just 21 points on 7-of-33 shooting. They average a combined 32 points per game.
With Lumpkin breaking Bryant’s ankles on a nifty spin move in the lane and then a McIntosh three, Northwestern built a lead that swelled to as big as 18 points. Free throws, owing to Indiana getting into the bonus relatively early in the second half, artificially kept the Hoosiers in the game for longer than they deserved to be.
The final blow for Indiana, which has now lost back-to-back games for the second time this season, was a Lindsey baseline 10-footer that gave Northwestern a 60-45 advantage with just under four minutes to play. It’s not easy to make up much ground in a second half when you shoot under 30 percent from the field.
McIntosh capped the game in about as perfect a way as possible, drilling an 18-footer as the clock ran down. With Lindsey ailing and Vic Law not shooting well, the Wildcats needed their point guard to lead the way, and he did so against the team with his home-state proudly displayed on their crisp white jerseys.
- It was pleasing the see the offense not be limited by the Wildcats’ weak three-point shooting. Thanks to Scottie Lindsey not being at 100 percent, Nathan Taphorn’s mid-game injury and Law/McIntosh missing open looks, the usually reliable Northwestern perimeter game just wasn’t cooking. Unlike in the Minnesota game, when the lack of outside shots was a death knell, it wasn’t a big deal because of how McIntosh’s penetration opened everything up for the offense.
- It’s getting real, folks. Northwestern is now 7-2 in the Big Ten, just a half-game behind leaders Maryland and Wisconsin. A tough stretch of games — at Purdue and Wisconsin, home for Maryland — is coming up, though, which will prove to be the best test yet for the Wildcats. That’s why getting this win was so important.