WASHINGTON, DC — Northwestern wasn’t messing around.
A 31-0 run in the first half put Rutgers out of reach in a game that finished 83-61. With history seemingly on the horizon, avoiding a loss to last-place Rutgers will allow the Wildcats to breathe.
But they won’t.
There are bigger goals in mind.
Next up on the docket is No. 25 Maryland, one of two Big Ten programs Chris Collins has yet to beat in his four years as Northwestern’s head coach. And it’s also a program against which he holds a long history.
“I just respect their program so much,” Collins said after the game, referring to games against Maryland as “battles.” “For me, I’ve had the opportunity to compete against Maryland for a long time.”
As a player, Collins went 6-2 against the Terps, including a 27-point outburst in his final ACC road game, a game Duke won on a Ricky Price buzzer-beater. And as an assistant at his alma mater, Collins’s teams beat Maryland 21 out of 33 times. But that was in the halcyon days of the ACC.
As a Wildcat, Collins is 0-4, losing two games in Evanston and two in College Park, one on a buzzer-beater and one in overtime.
With the Verizon Center just about 15 miles from the Xfinity Center, Northwestern expects a raucous crowd.
“We’ve had some good games against them here the last couple years,” he said. “We need to get rested, study up on those guys, watch the tape. We know there’s going to be a lot of red in here.”
Collins has shared some stories of his “battles” with Maryland from over the years. Senior forward Sanjay Lumpkin said Collins told the team about a time when the Maryland fans started heckling former-Duke star Carlos Boozer’s family during a game.
“They’re intense,” Lumpkin said, “but it was a funny story and we were all laughing about it.”
“We’ve always played really well there,” Lumpkin added in reference to playing the Terps in College Park. “It has always come down to the last couple minutes. And it’s really been that last play that cost us the game... They’ve had our number the last few games, but it’ll be a big game tomorrow... It’ll be a great atmosphere, but we’re not just looking at this as a ‘good experience.’ We’re looking to win the game.”
What does “looking to win the game” actually mean? For starters, the Wildcats have to address Maryland star Melo Trimble. The junior guard has dominated Northwestern in their four matchups to the tune of 25.25 points per game. He’s shot 52 percent from the field and over 46 percent from three. It’s fair to call him a “Northwestern killer”.
“At our place, they’ve kind of kicked our butts,” Collins said. “They did that last month.”
In Northwestern’s 74-64 loss to the Terps in mid-February, Trimble controlled the game from the start, probing the lane for layups and also stretching the Wildcats’ defense from deep. A big difference for Trimble this year, though, is a more concentrated focus as a scorer, especially with talented freshman Anthony Cowan taking over a lot of the ball-handling responsibilities.
“What the addition of Cowan has done is allow [Trimble] to be a scorer, and they can move [Trimble] off the ball,” Collins said following Northwestern’s loss last month. “It’s definitely tough to guard when he gets rolling like that.”
With Trimble playing off the ball, it’s easier for defenders to lose him as he weaves through screens. While Vic Law’s defensive talents were recognized with a spot on the Big Ten’s All-Defensive Team, he struggled to handle Trimble. But he was also without his partner on the wing, Scottie Lindsey, who was out with illness.
“When Scottie’s out there, he allows us to be a lot more aggressive defensively,” Law said following the February loss. “He would have been helpful tonight with guarding Trimble.”
Since beating Northwestern, though, Maryland went through a bit of a rough stretch, losing three in a row before finishing the regular season with two wins.
For these Wildcats right now, that doesn’t matter. What does: Maryland stands in the way of a goal.
“We came here to try to compete for a championship,” Collins said.