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Northwestern's wild, up-and-down loss to Creighton exposes defensive flaws

The Wildcats need to communicate better on switches, among other defensive issues.

Creighton v Northwestern Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

ROSEMONT, Ill. — Vic Law lay on his back with arms spread wide. With a piercing scowl on his face, he held up three fingers on each hand, remaining still on the court as the Allstate Arena crowd roared around him and his teammates rushed to picked him up.

A lot had changed in 30 minutes or so.

It was in that moment, that buzzing flash of noise, that Northwestern screamed a message that hadn't been present for most of the night.

We're back, and we're here to stay.

So it seemed.

That snapshot in time followed Law's second of four triples after halftime, this one a four-point play. It was part of a up-and-down, scintillating stretch in which the most athletic player on Northwestern was also the best. The ensuing free throw gave Northwestern its first lead since early in a first half where Chris Collins' team gave up 51 points and trailed by as many as 15.

Northwestern's furious comeback ignited the crowd, but it wasn’t enough. For every haymaker, every momentum-reversing bucket for the home team, the Blue Jays had an apt counter in their 92-88 win. Collins attributed his team's defensive mistakes to poor communication.

"They play at a really fast tempo," Collins said. "When you're running back, if you're not talking, you can get cross-matched, you get lost and that's what was happening. I didn't think we were talking at a high-level."

Northwestern would've lost by more if it weren't for a breathtaking offensive exhibition from Bryant McIntosh and Law's 30-point eruption. McIntosh poured in a spectacular 24-point, 9-assist outing in which he sat on the bench for exactly 43 seconds of game time.

"Would I like him to play 40? No," Collins said. "Can he? Yes."

McIntosh had it going all night, zigging and zagging through the lane to hit contested floaters and dish to his teammates. The methodical, weaving approach can cause the offense to grind to a halt at times, but when B-Mac's on — and boy was he Wednesday — it's beautiful.

Despite a masterclass of an offensive showing, his bane was the defensive end of the floor, just as it was for his team. Inhibited by foul trouble for Scottie Lindsey and Dererk Pardon in key spots, NU, which was outscored 48-26 in the paint, couldn't put together enough stops to pick up a resume-building W.

"This is a game we talk about as like a program game," McIntosh said. "It's an opportunity to kind of show everybody what we're about, and we actually did the opposite. We're a blue-collar, defensive-first program, and tonight, it was great we put up 88 points, but we gave up 92...Just disappointing. That's all I got."

Early on it was freshman Ty-Shon Alexander working for the Blue Jays. He canned four threes on six tries, each one a silencing, effortless blow.

After Alexander propelled Creighton to its first half lead, Khyri Thomas, who attacked McIntosh off-the-dribble, got going. He slashed, leapt and sped to the rim at will, particularly in his 15-point second half. Thomas put in 24 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists while switching between NU's top perimeter players. Like McIntosh and Law on the other end, it was an All-American-caliber performance.

For most of the contest, the player generating the All-America hype for Greg McDermott's team coming in, Marcus Foster, was held in check by Law, Northwestern's defensive buzzsaw. Law made it tough on Foster all night — the sturdily-built Creighton guard finished with just 12 points and 3-of-11 shooting — but, like elite players do, Foster found a rhythm eventually. He hit two incredibly important threes late in the second half, which stuck with Law, who has grown into one of the nation's best defensive stoppers, after the game.

"I don't need to be worried about offense," Law said. "Offense comes and goes. I would say I'm a defensive player, and I think I gave up the last eight points of the game. I'm happy I scored, but as a defensive-minded player, I think I need to do a better job."

The ticked-off, wanting mood by Collins, Law and McIntosh in the press conference sheds light on the expectations this Northwestern team has for itself. This one hurt. What it does, however, is provide a valuable measuring stick. NU's talent could get it past a lot of teams, but it has some defensive problems right now, and Creighton's firepower shattered those cracks.

"I know for me it's mad, upset, frustrated," McIntosh said of his feeling after the game. "We've had trouble switching guard-to-guard, our communication's been lacking. We keep talking about it and not fixing it, but we're expecting a different result. Tonight it got us beat. Our defense just wasn't good enough. I hope it's eye-opening for our guys."

Even with the defensive struggles, there was a real crowd, an impactful crowd, at an NU home game for the first time since Welsh-Ryan Arena was knocked down. Allstate Arena was living, breathing and rocking, at least as much as one could probably expect from a temporary home so far away from Northwestern's Evanston campus.

"Fantastic atmosphere," Law said. "You look at Northwestern five years ago and have them play at Allstate Arena, and I don't think you have a crowd like this. Credit to those who have been supporting us, who have been giving us as much life as we give each other."

"I felt our fans,” Collins added.

But Northwestern isn't a program that takes pride in silver-linings anymore. There was no moral victory Wednesday night. Just a bitter, irritated feeling. Starting on Saturday against La Salle, the players will have a chance to unleash their frustration in the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament.

“We’re in the same spot as we were last year when we lost to Butler and then went to a tournament,” Law said. “In Connecticut, we’re trying to win a championship. Whatever it takes. We have to learn from this game and get better, just like we did last year."