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Balanced effort against St. Peter's sets up pivotal clash with Creighton

It wasn't pretty again, but the stage is set for a big one Wednesday.

NCAA Basketball: St. Peter's at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

ROSEMONT, Ill. — Northwestern’s players walked to the bench at the under-8 media timeout trailing 20-point underdog St. Peter’s. Heads were down, and Chris Collins was audibly angry. The crowd at Allstate Arena was stunned silent, though that could’ve been because there just weren’t that many fans.

Feeding Derek Pardon the ball down low was not working. His teammates were giving him the ball in congested areas and it resulted in a series of early turnovers. Pardon wasn’t the only one turning the ball over, though. The Wildcats committed nine turnovers in the first 20 minutes, which helped the undersized Peacocks hang in.

After narrowly escaping Loyola (Md.) Friday on night, a slow start against another inferior opponent was a bit unnerving.

“With everybody in the country playing so many games right now, these are quick turnarounds, and there’s minimal preparation for everybody,” Collins said in reference to his teams underwhelming start.

Late in the first half, Northwestern led by just two. The Wildcats shot 50 percent in the opening period, but they turned the ball over too often to be efficient.

The second half was a different story. After their first half struggles, the Wildcats came out of the locker room firing; making threes on their first three possessions of the half. They moved the ball quickly, set hard screens and converted the open looks their ball movement created.

Bryant McIntosh ran the point masterfully after halftime. He called out offensive sets, moved the rock quickly and dictated the tempo well. His patented floater was on display on several occasions as well, as he duked defenders into biting on his pump-fake several times before finishing in the paint.

The player of the game, however, was Gavin Skelly. The Ohio native worked for extra possessions all night, earning two over-the-back penalties and a couple offensive rebounds. He showed some serious athleticism as well on a couple of thunderous dunks in the first half. He tallied 14 points, and collected six rebounds in total. His presence as a fifth scorer was incredibly important.

“I came out a little bit more aggressive offensively, was calling for the ball," Skelly said. "I told my team I was going to be better today than I was last game...Once I made a couple baskets I think it kind of opened up for me,” Skelly said.

Northwestern's defense wasn't great on the night, but it should be said that it had to defend a lot. St. Peter's plays one of the slowest tempos in the country, which made the Wildcats guard for the majority of the shot clock all night. The Peacocks made 10 threes and scored 41 points in the second half, so there's work ahead for a group that will face one of the most dynamic offense's in the country when Creighton comes to Allstate Arena Wednesday.

Collins had an interesting take on his teams defensive performance after the game. The Wildcats allowed Loyola (Md.) and St. Peter’s to score at least 40 points when defending the half of the court opposite the teams bench, but held both of those teams to less than 30 points while defending in front of their own bench, and coaches. Collins believes a lack of communication defensively to be the root of this issue.

Come Wednesday, Collins said the Wildcats “have got to put 40 minutes together," and "need to be locked in defensively." With talented wings Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas on the perimeter, the Blue Jays can light it up when they're on.

Creighton is averaging over 100 points per game through their first two, and will surely look to push the pace to get Foster and Thomas the ball in transition. Taking care of the ball, which Northwestern has not done in its first two games this season, will be key.

"We don't necessarily have the firepower to withstand 17 turnovers," Collins said.

Northwestern has survived two closer than expected games against inferior opponents thus far this season. Its first real test of the season comes Wednesday night.