In its first ever Big Ten Tournament semifinal, Northwestern fell flat in a major way. Blame fatigue from the two previous games if you want, or even blame it on the late finish in the Maryland win. That certainly wasn’t how the players perceived it.
“When you get this late into the tournament, it's about energy,” Bryant McIntosh said. “It's about effort. We didn't have enough of either today. They beat us to every 50/50 ball. They deserved to win the game, and we didn't. We didn't even deserve to be on the floor at some points. They put it on us today. Just disappointed in our energy and effort.”
There was one way to describe the first half, when Northwestern let the game get away: stagnant. Offensively, the Wildcats were stagnant. The ball movement was stagnant. Defensively, the Wildcats forced just three turnovers and didn’t complete possessions. The numbers tell the story on both ends. Northwestern had one assist in the opening 20 minutes and gave up seven offensive rebounds to the Badgers, who turned those extra possessions into 12 second-chance points.
“Initially, our defense was pretty good,” Chris Collins, clearly both frustrated and exhausted, said. “A lot of their buckets were coming off offensive rebounds, throwing out for threes, a loose ball they got which led to a basket.”
In the second half, the numbers remained largely the same. Wisconsin had six turnovers in the second half, but Northwestern only turned those into four points, and the Badgers added three more offensive rebounds. The Wildcats ended the game with just five assists, a season low.
“That's something we have to be better with,” McIntosh said. “When we cause them to collapse, we’ve got to share it.”
Northwestern looked out of sync from the start, missing its first seven shots. There would be three separate stretches in which Northwestern missed at least five shots in a row. After shooting over 50 percent from the field in its first two games at the Verizon Center, the Wildcats shot under 35 percent against the Badgers. Northwestern also turned it over 12 times. The turnover-to-assist ratio of 12-to-5 was the worst of the season, and the only other effort that came close was an 11-turnover, 5-assist disaster at Illinois — which was another extremely stagnant performance.
“You know when you play these guys what kind of game it's going to be,” Collins said. “It's going to be a possession-by-possession, execution-based game. We weren't able to match that today.”
The good thing for Northwestern is that for the first time for these players and this coaching staff, there is basketball still to be played after the Big Ten Tournament. And thus the lessons learned can be put in place immediately.
“The last two games were against teams that are probably gonna be in the tournament, and they’ve been there before; they have the experience,” Scottie Lindsey said in a subdued but certainly not completely disheartened locker room. “Those are tournament-like games we felt like, so we’ll just use those and learn from the mistakes we made in these games and hopefully not making those mistakes when we’re hopefully in the tournament.”
Northwestern was outplayed by a large, large margin. And make no mistake: Wisconsin is a good team that played well, too. But with big opportunities and history-making moments ahead, this game also gave the clearly spent Wildcats a lesson.
It’s one they’ll be able to use just days from now, rather than after the offseason break this program has been accustomed to arriving at once the conference tournament concludes.