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Shutdown second-half powers Northwestern to history

The Wildcats can thank a fantastic second-half defensive effort for a trip to their first ever conference tournament semifinals.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Tournament-Northwestern vs Maryland Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The most important shot of the game happened by accident.

Gavin Skelly got trapped in the paint and tried to feed it to Dererk Pardon. It flew over Pardon’s head. But Bryant McIntosh tracked it down in the corner and nailed a three right in front of his own bench. Northwestern trailed by 10 when the ball left his hands, the team’s biggest deficit of the night. When the ball tickled the twine, it kickstarted a 20-2 run that turned the game on its head and gave Northwestern an incredible and historic victory that now has the team in its first ever Big Ten tournament semifinal.

And while the Wildcats shot the ball well for the second straight night, it was suffocating defense that spurred the run. During that 9-minute, 23-second stretch of the second half, the Terrapins shot 1-of-7 from the field and committed six turnovers.

“When our defense is clicking, our offense just automatically ramps up,” Vic Law Jr. said. “We get energy from playing defense, from stopping the other team from what they want to do.”

For Northwestern, that meant stopping Melo Trimble. And while Maryland’s star guard did finish with 20 points and four assists, he also had six turnovers, including three during the definitive stretch.

“In the previous game, Melo got a lot of points off curls, ball screens,” Scottie Lindsey said. “Our help line, it really wasn't in the right position. We adjusted how we were guarding him. I think with everyone in the right positions, we did a better job.”

Lindsey’s return made the task significantly easier. When Law Jr. had two first-half fouls, Chris Collins was able to use Lindsey, Bryant McIntosh and even Jordan Ash — who had the most success against Trimble, albeit in a small sample size — to slow the man who had dominated to the tune of 32 points when the two teams met in Evanston earlier this year. Meanwhile, the second half of defending Trimble on the pick-and-roll — defending the roller — was also effective. Maryland centers Damonte Dodd and Ivan Bender just five times combined and scored six points combined.

But back to the second-half run: It was one of the best stretches of defense Northwestern has played this season, and perhaps even more impressively, it came on the heels of a stretch of over eight minutes in which the Wildcats didn’t make a field goal, a cold streak that started with 4:32 left in the first half and ended over four minutes into the second half. Things certainly looked dire until that run. The Wildcats were sloppy coming out of the halftime break, and the Terrapins were feeding off a loud pro-Maryland home crowd. But there is no better way to quiet a crowd than to simply shut down an offense and then score on the other end: The Wildcats went 9-of-13 with just two turnovers during that stretch.

“Was really proud of our team,” Collins said. “We had a lot of toughness. Withstood a big run to start the game, then at the end of the first half, early second half.”

Playing what was essentially a road game, Northwestern needed stops when its offense struggled. Few teams can beat Maryland in Maryland when not making a shot for over a fifth of the game. But thanks to fantastic team defense, the Wildcats were able to stick around when they went cold and then pull ahead when they heated up, helping their coach get his first win over Maryland in the process.