WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was a neutral court in name only.
With College Park just a shade over nine miles to the north, Verizon Center was filled with Maryland fans, clad in red Under Armour and hungry for a deep Big Ten Tournament run in their own backyard. As they streamed out by the dozens with time still left on the clock, it was apparent they went home angry and unsatisfied.
Northwestern, buoyed by a small but loud fan contingent across from the Wildcats’ bench, absorbed various punches from the No. 25 Terps — including a partially self-inflicted 8:36 scoring drought from the end of the first half to the start of the second — en route to a telling 72-64 victory in Friday night’s Big Ten quarterfinals.
The inclusion of Maryland into the Big Ten, and setting of the tournament in Washington, D.C, set the stage for the atmosphere, which felt more like that of a Terps’ home game than a supposed neutral site. When Melo Trimble made a three-point play, the crowd cheered. When Bryant McIntosh drilled a huge three, it groaned.
“We were in a foxhole and those guys in the locker room with me are the guys I want in that hole with me,” McIntosh said. “It was a great atmosphere, with our backs against the wall a couple times and we fought. I can’t be more happy and proud of my guys.”
With every perceived missed call, the Maryland faithful — including ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt — grew more and more agitated. As they showered criticisms onto the officials, just like a frustrated Terrapins coaching staff did, Northwestern mounted its charge.
One day after scoring 31 consecutive points to down Rutgers, the Wildcats went on a big run again on Friday, rolling off a 20-2 spurt to gain control against Maryland. Nine or so minutes after facing a 10-point deficit, Northwestern was up 54-46 and on its way to yet another historic win.
All season, rabid crowds at Welsh-Ryan have given Chris Collins’ team a boost at home. For a change, the Wildcats were on the opposing end of a loud, partisan atmosphere. However, it seemed to energize Northwestern, as a few players mentioned is usually the case when the team is in a hostile environment.
Scottie Lindsey, who scored 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, said as much.
“We definitely feel that when we're on the road, in enemy territory, we come together as a team,” Lindsey said, and come together the Wildcats did.
Northwestern’s cheering section may have been a small one, but it was enough. Even with the prolonged offensive slump and hyped-up Maryland bench and fans, the default visitors didn’t give an inch. There would be no devastating collapse, or mental mishap.
As the Wildcats’ defense locked down on Maryland’s primary ball-handlers — Trimble and Anthony Cowan combined to commit 11 turnovers — offense was generated. Northwestern scored 25 points off the Terps’ 14 total miscues, which the game-changing run to fester and grow.
“It was a game of runs,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “It was amazing. We started well, and then they were up eight or nine, and then we got the lead, went up 10, then they dominated from there.”
The rooting interests of the crowd were most apparent during a second half TV timeout, when Julia Louis-Dreyfus — actress and mom of Northwestern’s Charlie Hall — was shown on the Verizon Center jumbotron in a Northwestern shirt, and was promptly booed.
When Van Pelt was pictured a moment later in a white Maryland pullover, raucous cheers reverberated throughout the arena. Feeding off the noise, he rose from his first row seat as the support got louder and louder. If only things went the same way for his Terrapins.
Things started to turn the Wildcats’ way almost immediately afterward and, before Trimble was able to stop the bleeding for Maryland, Northwestern was already sealing the game away at the free throw line.
This Northwestern team facing adversity, a long scoreless stretch and a improbable odds at a win? Sounds familiar, and these Wildcats — who are a single win away from a chance at a previously unfathomable Big Ten Championship — have been there before.
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