MADISON, Wis. — He walked over to the sideline around the 10-minute mark of the first half and asked his coach, his mentor and his biggest advocate — all the same person — for a break.
Permission not granted. No. 30 was going all 40.
Getting a quick breather was just about the only thing Bryant McIntosh wasn’t able to do on a night in which he recorded a season-high 25 points, dished out seven assists and secured seven rebounds, pushing his undermanned Northwestern Wildcats to a thoroughly impressive 66-59 win over Wisconsin.
“Yeah, I pretty much knew he was going 40,” Chris Collins admitted after the game, a smile coming to both his face and that of his point guard.
Of course he did. Coming off a brutally disappointing loss against Illinois, how could Bryant McIntosh not go 40 minutes? With no Scottie Lindsey for the third straight game and a new starting lineup that featured Nathan Taphorn in place of Isiah Brown, it was McIntosh who was once again the heart and soul of the team. He’s scored 20-plus points in four straight games. He’s averaged over 38 minutes per night without his starting shooting guard by his side. Even as his team had struggled and opposing defenses had zeroed in on him, McIntosh had managed to play some of his best offensive ball this season.
Most of all, Collins needed McIntosh for 40 minutes because Northwestern needed to win these 40 minutes.
“More than anything I think it was big that we had just lost two in a row and we were able to get back on track with this win,” Collins said. “It was huge for the here and now, regardless of any historical implication. Really really proud of how the guys bounced back.”
Despite his valiant 21-point effort against Illinois, McIntosh needed to bounce back too. He turned the ball over six times against the Illini, including several down the stretch. Instead of letting those late-game woes carry over, he dominated the closing stages of this game. Over the final 3:46, Northwestern’s point guard scored eight points — making both of his shots and all four of his free throws — and dished out two assists. He didn’t have a single turnover.
“A lot of teams can fall apart when they have lost two in a row and are without their leading scorer, but we recognized that we couldn’t feel sorry for ourselves and that resolve showed tonight,” McIntosh said.
A lot of individual players can fall apart, too. Bryant McIntosh isn’t one of them.
When Dererk Pardon entered a solemn press conference following the Illinois loss, he got three questions. Just three. He answered each dutifully, though with clear disappointment in his voice. And then he left. The big man had managed just six points for the second straight game. In the three games following his explosive 19-point, 22-rebound effort against Nebraska, he had averaged just four points — he was scoreless against Indiana — and a hair over five rebounds per game. Enter one of the nation’s elite players, a 6-foot-10 multi-talented yet unassuming post force named Ethan Happ.
Pardon responded with one of the finest all-around efforts of his career. His 11 points were a massive boost the team had lacked in his past few outings. His eight rebounds — four on each end of the floor — were hugely important against a team that owns the fifth-best rebounding percentage in all of college basketball. He also added two steals.
“I’d go into a battle with Dererk Pardon any night of the week because he’s just going to put his heart out onto the floor,” Collins said. “I think he realized what he was up against, you know? And I think it motivated him...I think just the competition of playing against one of the truly elite big men in — forget about the conference — the country gave him a little bit of extra motivation to play this game.”
The effort that doesn’t show up in his stat line was a huge part of Pardon’s performance, too. His length and size - and Northwestern’s double-teaming - made life difficult on Happ. Wisconsin’s star big man had seven points in the first 5:45. He had just two points — and didn’t make a single field goal — over the next 34:15.
“I thought our defense was the story of the game,” Collins said. “I was really proud of our team defense against a team with so many weapons. I thought we did a really good job communicating on our double teams and getting out to shooters.”
If defense was the story of Pardon’s day, his impressive contributions on the other end were a darn good subplot. The sophomore showed his own polished array of moves with hook shoots over both shoulders against Happ. Of all the surprising statistics in the game, perhaps none was more eye-opening than this: The Wildcats outscored the Badgers 20-6 in the paint.
“We made a conscious decision to get in the paint and make things happen, and I was really happy with how our guys executed against a defense like that,” Collins said.
Pardon’s relentless effort on both ends was keenly important against a team that stresses an inside-out offensive style and gets its post players a lot of touches. Pardon won the battle against one of the nation’s best players on both ends.
I’d go to battle with him too, Chris.
Vic Law Jr. and Nathan Taphorn don’t share the floor all too often. That changed on Saturday when Collins decided to start the redshirt sophomore standout and the deadeye senior together. It was a new look — Collins clearly wanted Brown’s scoring punch and energy off the bench as he had provided for the first 22 games of the season, and Taphorn is a battle-tested senior who can provide instant catch-and-shoot offense.
It didn’t work. At first.
Brown came into the game for Taphorn under five minutes after the contest had started, and Northwestern trailed by as much seven on three different occasions early on. But Law, who struggled with his shot for much of the afternoon, hit the visitors’ first three of the game to cut it to 19-15, and McIntosh’s bucket made it 19-17 at the under-eight timeout.
Then Taphorn came back and along with him came more offense. Spurred by a strong defensive sequence that held the hosts scoreless for nearly five minutes, the Wildcats continued that 5-0 spurt and made it a 16-0 game-altering run. Before, the visitors were lifeless and hanging on. Afterward, the same could be said about the hosts. The Kohl Center had turned cold after a Pardon bucket and back-to-back-to-back threes, one from Law and two from Taphorn, put the visitors up nine, a margin they would take into halftime.
Taphorn scored just those six points, but those six points deflated the Badger faithful. And when Greg Gard was asked about where he felt the game was lost, the head coach pointed to that 16-0 run, fueled by the Law-Taphorn pairing. They don’t play together often. Against Wisconsin, they turned the tide of what had been a brutal first half.
In the closing moments of a 40-minute affair, the man standing tallest was the man who had played all 40. The man who had crumbled less than a week before in perhaps the most disheartening Northwestern basketball loss in recent memory. The man whose head rests upon the shoulders weighed down by a 77-year curse he and his teammates are inching ever nearer to breaking. Bryant McIntosh closed emphatically. He took over. He was the finisher Northwestern needed to secure the program’s biggest win.
“Best player on the floor, hands down,” Gard said.
The best player on the floor led his short-handed team to a statement, resume-making win, when he could have been dragged down by the weight of a program on his shoulders.
Instead, on a Sunday night at the Kohl Center that may go down in history, McIntosh’s 6-foot-3, 185-pound frame towered over everyone.