EVANSTON — For a Northwestern team so reliant on the three-point shot, the pressing question is how it is going to adapt on those nights when the shots don’t fall. Unfortunately, Thursday was one of those nights, and it’s clear the Wildcats don’t have that answer.
The Wildcats led 39-35 at the intermission in Thursday night’s Big Ten home opener against Minnesota, but a 10-0 Golden Gopher run early in the second half and abysmal shooting numbers down the stretch turned what would have been a nice win into a 70-66 loss.
Instead of rebounding from the Michigan State loss with a nice resume boost, Chris Collins’ team fell in an equally frustrating and disappointing manner. It’s the type of loss that will be mentioned when the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee convenes and invariably discusses Northwestern at the beginning of March.
“It was a disappointing result for us tonight,” Chris Collins said. “I thought we played hard and did a lot of good things, but it was a tale of two games.”
Both teams started strong offensively, as the Wildcats and Golden Gophers traded baskets on nearly every possession for the first few minutes. The Wildcats made seven of their first eight field goals — including Jordan Ash’s first three-pointer since November 22 — but then cooled off significantly.
After a Bryant McIntosh jumper at the 12:12 mark gave Northwestern a 22-16 lead, it would be over eight minutes before the Wildcats’ next field goal. Still, they managed to hold the lead at the break and extend it in the few first minutes of the second half.
What turned the tide of this game was the 10-0 Minnesota run that wiped out Northwestern’s game-high seven-point lead. Another Wildcats field goal drought, this one of nearly five-and-a-half minutes, and back-to-back threes from Akeem Springs and Amir Coffrey helped give Minnesota a 50-47 edge. The Golden Gophers wouldn’t trail for the remaining 10:35.
“Our guys dug in defensively in the second half,” Pitino said. “To hold them to 28 percent in the second half was really impressive... We were down by seven and showed great resolve like we did at Purdue.”
The Wildcats, despite a 5-of-11 showing from beyond the arc in the first half, were held to just 1-of-15 three-point shooting in the final 20 minutes. That doomed the hosts in this crucial matchup.
Minnesota, which beat Purdue in overtime on Sunday in West Lafayette, staged a similar comeback on Thursday. Coffey (17 points) and Springs (eight points off the bench) led the charge for Minnesota, and the Wildcats had no answers on either end of the floor.
Asked if the Golden Gophers did anything differently on defense in the second half, Pitino said no. Chris Collins agreed, and blamed the loss on his team missing open looks it usually is able to knock down.
“They stayed with their same coverages all night,” Collins said. “We went 1-for-15 from three in the second half, it’s going to be hard to win a game if you do that. I want to look at the tape, but I think 10 of those were open.”
“Minnesota is a good team, they have a lot of length and it’s hard to score on them at the basket.. .At the end, we got a lot of good looks. Gavin got two wide open looks at the top of the key... You have to make those shots and come up with a big shot at the end of the game to get a win.”
First half shooting has usually been pretty good for Northwestern this season, but it has often tailed off — especially from three-point range — after the break. In all three Big Ten games so far, the Wildcats have converted at least 40 percent of their threes in the first half and have failed to eclipse 36 percent in any second half.
Bryant McIntosh, who scored 21 points on Thursday in his first 20-point performance since the November 28 win over Wake Forest, suggested that maybe the team was worn out by the up-tempo play of the first half.
“We had some fatigue in the second half which led to us not executing as well,” McIntosh said. “We ran great offense but we just didn’t run it sharp... That led to us forcing those shots at the end of the shot clock.”
Maybe center Dererk Pardon, who returned to action after missing eight games due to a broken non-shooting hand, said it best, even though he didn’t attempt a three all game — but did knock down an impressive 18-footer.
“We just didn’t make open shots tonight, plain and simple. We’ll make those eventually though, the law of averages.”