As the minutes section of the many electronic game clocks displays simultaneously ticked from ‘6’ to ‘5’, a raucous, half-disbelieving buzz swelled from the large purple section of the seats in Vivint Smart Home Arena and resounded throughout every corner of the building. A Northwestern fan base that had spent the vast majority of the game trying to shrug off its gloom and provide its Wildcats with support had now been lifted off its feet by the most valiant of second-half fight backs.
On the floor, the man who was at the head of that charge — Northwestern’s Vic Law Jr. — crouched low, licked his lips and confidently smacked his hands together. He exuded an air of superiority over all on the floor around him, in particular the man approaching him with the ball; the leading scorer for one of the nation’s leading teams, Nigel Williams-Goss.
Like he had successfully against so many defenders before this season, Williams-Goss accepted the challenge and tried to take matters into his own hands. He tried to attack off the dribble, run off ball screens, curl off down screens and get free using dribble hand-offs, but nothing worked. Law stuck to him with his 6-foot-7 frame, with that same look of daring focus on his face the entire time. Out of options, the Gonzaga guard threw up a contested mid-range look at the rim, which was firmly met by Law’s outstretched finger tips.
Before anyone could blink an eye, Law was loping down the other end of the floor and setting the Northwestern offense in motion with a chance to cut the lead to just two possessions. He darted off the ball to the wing, made his move as Bryant McIntosh released a high-arcing three, followed the flight of the ball with his eyes as he made a bee-line toward the basket, effortlessly rose to the height of the rim and emphatically threw the ball through the rim a split second after it had caromed off.
A 23-8 run for Northwestern! #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/wm9v9qiGyt— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 18, 2017
Cue pandemonium. Cue a Gonzaga timeout.
Unfortunately for Northwestern, this was the peak of the comeback bid. A blatant missed goaltending call, a subsequent technical foul on Chris Collins, and commendable poise and execution down the stretch from a veteran Bulldogs team meant that the Wildcats’ season ended in a 79-73 loss to the West Region’s No. 1 seed.
The team as a whole could not have given more in the second period to overcome a deficit that at one point ballooned to as high as 22 points in the first half, but it was Law’s individual effort which truly showcased the turnaround. Offensively, he entered the half coming off of three halves of NCAA Tournament basketball where he had shot just 2-13 for a combined five points and looked altogether overwhelmed around the basket and unsure of himself with the ball in his hands on the perimeter. He turned around in the next 20 minutes and poured in 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, doing so with three-point shooting off the catch, a midrange game and energy on the offensive glass.
Defensively, he had done his usual lockdown job on Williams-Goss in the first half but to little avail, as the Zags star easily maneuvered his way around screens to either get shots off over Law’s long arms or fight his way to the rim at will en route to 14 points on 50 percent shooting. After the break, however, Law was reinvigorated and refocused and reached a familiar stratosphere of defensive resolve. Williams-Goss was a non-factor until late exchanges at the free throw line, hitting just one of his nine field goal attempts and turning the ball over three times, unable to shake Law off the dribble or hit over his lengthy and well-timed contests.
Law’s second half was undoubtedly brilliant, and it nearly drove Northwestern to the most improbable of victories, but it should simultaneously have many Wildcats fans scratching their heads. Why had a guy whose all-around athletic package allowed him to pull off such a complete half like that against the nation’s best, been utterly invisible for the previous 60 minutes of tournament basketball?
Of course, for those who have followed Northwestern all season, it will not be the first time that they have puzzled over Law for more or less this same reason. He made at least half his shots in 15 of the team’s 36 games this season, but he also had 11 games in which he shot 25 percent or lower.
These are obviously questions of inconsistency, and answers to these questions can be found in the incomplete nature of Law’s game. Despite his incredible lateral quickness defensively, Law has not yet figured out how to operate off the dribble offensively. He shot 28.1 percent on two-point jumpers, and 50 percent of his makes came off an assist, only behind Gavin Skelly, Nathan Taphorn and Barret Benson, all guys who are not individual shot creators, either.
With the Northwestern offense toiling without success to get anything going in the first half, Law could do nothing to help and was largely invisible. He was repeatedly thwarted in close when he ran into Gonzaga’s bigs and could barely put the ball on the floor much less initiate offense in the half court for fear of turning it over. With the Bulldogs keeping their turnovers and missed shots down and limiting Law’s transition opportunities, he was left to make the entirety of his impact through his spot-up shooting from distance, which yielded just one made field goal in the first half.
Law’s second half success occurred within the same incomplete framework, but this time just happened to produce the success of the Butler, Michigan State or Michigan games. His three-point shot and one dribble pull-ups were falling. Blocked shots, steals and long rebounds allowed the Wildcats to make the game more fluid and get out in transition, and for Law to influence their attack around the rim. The result was a dominant 20 minute performance that nearly turned the game on its head.
However, while Law did as much as he could in the second half to drag Northwestern back within shouting distance, the lopsided first half was where the game was decided. Chris Collins said as much in his post-game press conference. With McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey stifled in their ability to score and create open looks on the perimeter, Law was rendered a non-factor without the completed package to be a primary option offensively. It is in games and moments like these where Northwestern desperately needed Law to complete that package and find that consistency as a play-making, multi-talented individual offensive force this year.
For a player who is defensively and athletically already among the Big Ten’s elite, Law will need to use the physical tools that he already has in his arsenal to add an element or two to his offensive game going forward. If he can smooth the edges and round out his foundation, that could be just the factor that would allow this Northwestern team to turn the corner and beat teams like Gonzaga in games such as Saturday’s, as well as allow Law to turn the corner towards becoming the truly special player — on both the conference and national scale — that he could be.