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Northwestern’s re-energized defense leads the way in commanding win over Valparaiso

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The Wildcats were active and excellent on the defensive end for a second straight game.

NCAA Basketball: Valparaiso at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

As Valpo head coach Matt Lottich watched Northwestern dominate his Crusaders, he couldn’t decide whether to stand, sit or kneel. It was eerily reminiscent of last March, when Lottich’s predecessor Bryce Drew, now the coach at Vanderbilt, was seen standing, sitting and kneeling during the final three possessions of the Commodores’ first round NCAA tournament loss to the Wildcats.

Unlike its inaugural tournament game, an up and down affair that wasn’t won until Vanderbilt guard Riley LaChance missed a last chance opportunity, Northwestern (7-4) dominated Valparaiso (8-3) from start to finish on Thursday night at Allstate Arena.

Northwestern secured its second straight victory in impressive fashion. Courtesy of a 19-2 run to start the second half, the Wildcats extended their 17 point halftime lead to 34 in a matter of a few short minutes. For the second time this week, the starters rested as the walk-ons played to end the game.

“I thought to start the second half, that was key. We had the 17 point lead, we felt like the first four minutes of the half [were important],” Collins said.

Since the start of the 2014-2015 season, Valpo has been the 10th-winningest Division 1 program in the country, right behind the likes of Wichita State, the team they replaced in the Missouri Valley Conference this summer. Valpo had won a share of the horizon league regular season title in five of the last six seasons, it has been to the NCAA tournament twice in the past five years, and it recorded a 30-win season in 2015-2016 when it didn’t reach the tournament. Although the Crusaders just lost their third straight, it is the program’s first three-game skid since the 2013 season.

“We have amazing respect for Valpo. It’s a winning program, it’s not about one team that’s good with Valpo, they win every year. They have a winning tradition, and that’s one of the reasons we wanted to schedule the game,” Collins said.

Valpo was ranked just 29 spots below the Wildcats in Kenpom coming into tonight; Northwestern’s opponent earlier this week, Chicago State, had a Kenpom ranking in the 300s. The Crusaders had the sixth-ranked three-point field goal defense in the nation and had been one stop away from a 9-1 start.

Tonight, however, Northwestern played like a top-25 team. It started the game 7 of 8 from beyond the arc, led by Vic Law, who was 4-4 from deep and scored 14 of his game-high 18 points in the first seven minutes of the game. At halftime, the Wildcats had 12 assists on 16 first-half makes, and were +13 in second-chance points.

Despite missing their final six threes of the half, the lead didn’t dwindle. Northwestern played suffocating defense without fouling, forcing 10 Valpo turnovers while commiting just 4 fouls before the break.

“As long as we’re playing hard, the mistakes can be covered up,” Law said after the game.

Northwestern’s defensive splits from the first 10 games are pretty ridiculous. Through its first five games of the season, Northwestern was allowing 78.4 points per game on 49-percent shooting. It was forcing just 12 turnovers per game, and was lacking the energy and sense of desperation that had earned Collins’ team an NCAA Tournament berth last spring.

After the Wildcats’ lopsided loss to Texas Tech last month, Collins banned his players from wearing Northwestern gear and had the player posters that lined the walls of the team’s practice facility taken down, as well as the locker room banner from that March appearance.

In NU’s five games prior to Thursday, the defense bounced back. The motivated Wildcats allowed just 55 points per game on 39 percent shooting and became more active in passing lanes, forcing 17.8 turnovers per game.

“I feel like ever since Texas Tech, our defense has been in a really good place,” Collins said. “We’ve re-dedicated ourselves to that end of the floor.”

The Wildcats continued their defensive resurgence tonight, forcing 21 turnovers and holding the Crusaders to 50 points on 38.5 percent shooting.

Northwestern’s overall success is contingent on its defensive effort. If the Wildcats can keep up the intensity and success on that end (which won’t be easy against Oklahoma and the nation’s leading scorer in a week), fans might soon have reasons to forget the team’s slow start.