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All is not lost, but right now it feels that way

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At home against an inferior opponent, Northwestern simply fell flat.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

The teams had left the court. The home fans were on their way out, hustling into the Evanston night trying to run from a loss they couldn’t escape.

One shout came from the lower bowl of Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“I-L-L”

The response was a more tired than excited “I-N-I.”

It came from a fanbase with hopes already demolished, supporting a team in the midst of a lost season led by a coach very much on the hot seat. It was a momentary shout for joy; their team hadn’t won on the road in over a year.

The silent fan base, meanwhile, might have felt even worse than anything the opponents’ had all year. A chance for a pick-me-up win at home against a struggling opponent had gone begging.

Just about three-and-a-half minutes of game time earlier, it had looked like Northwestern was going to do what it had to survive: win — or rather, simply survive — without its best player. Out of the under-4 timeout, Bryant McIntosh had driven to the bucket and dished it out on the baseline. The pass was low, but it didn’t matter. Vic Law Jr. collected and fired with confidence. Northwestern led 59-56.

And then it hit a brick wall.

Over the last 3:31, Northwestern turned it over five times, missed all four of its shots and scored just two points, both McIntosh free throws. Illinois, meanwhile, turned it over just once and hit all three of its shots. Add in five free throws and the Illini finished the game on a 12-2 run.

“I thought our turnovers were really costly,” Chris Collins said. “We weren't able to get a shot at the basket the last few possessions there. Tonight wasn't a great night.”

It wasn’t a great night by any stretch of the imagination. And what’s more upsetting is that the Wildcats did enough to scrape by against one of the Big Ten’s worst teams for 36 minutes and 29 seconds. It wasn’t pretty. Without Lindsey, this team looks unsettled and disorganized, but the Wildcats had done enough to make this game a narrative of “Northwestern picks up scrappy, hard-fought win over in-state rival” rather than “Offense falls flat in crucial, disappointing loss.”

Players without McIntosh or Law Jr. on the back of their jersey shot 6 of 22 from the field and 1-of-8 from three. The bench mob, a formidable group two weeks ago, produced little. The Wildcats had numerous defensive breakdowns, including a lack of help on the pick-and-roll and poor organization in transition situations.

Still, they were there. They simply couldn’t close it out. The difference between a Lindsey-less team and one with him is obviously apparent. The hosts had 10 assists on 19 made shots, the worst ratio since, well, Purdue. The 19 made field goals tied Michigan State for the lowest output this season. But even so, a team that’s trying to prove it’s different had a late-game collapse very similar to previous versions.

The big question still remains, though, even after a bitter disappointment like this. It is heavily dependent on Lindsey’s return, and it is certainly not out of the question whatsoever. This loss, one that could have and perhaps should have been a win, hurts, but the opportunity remains there.

The light at the end of the 77-year tunnel dimmed when Lindsey got sick, dimmed again after a tough showing at Purdue and now has nearly gone black. Or at least, that’s how it feels after your team suffers a “bad loss” at home to a bad team.

“They're down,” Collins said of his players. “They put a lot into this game, they wanted to get back on the winning track, but that didn't happen. Gotta just keep playing, plugging along.”

When the light seems dimmest, plugging along is all you can do. For a Northwestern team without its best player and with a challenging road ahead, that’s all it can do, even if it feels empty right now.