ROSEMONT — At least for today, last year’s Wildcats are back.
The rim-rocking, fist-pumping, jumping up-and-down energy that typified the 2016-17 season returned during Northwestern’s (12-9, 3-5 Big Ten) 70-61 come-from-behind win over Penn State (13-8, 3-5). In the middle of a season that has not been fun for Northwestern, we saw the joy that carried last year's NCAA Tournament team.
In an up-and-down affair that took a while to get going, Northwestern got its swagger back. Against the same Penn State team that worked the Wildcats in State College a few weeks back, Chris Collins and his team delivered a strong second half performance to earn Northwestern's third win in Big Ten play.
Vic Law Jr. led Northwestern with 18 points, including three key threes in the win. The Wildcats outrebounded Penn State and outscored the Nittany Lions 20-8 in the paint in the second half.
The first half was relatively even, with Penn State jumping out to an early lead, in large part because of Shep Garner. Garner scored 17 points on 5-of-6 from beyond-the-arc in the first half, which paced the Nittany Lions to 68 percent shooting at the break.
Northwestern's offense settled in as the game went on, but there was still a lack of rhythm for both sides in the half, save for Garner. A clock issue midway through the frame prompted a lengthy delay, which could have contributed to that.
The four Wildcats' captains — Bryant McIntosh, Law, Scottie Lindsey and Dererk Pardon — combined for 27 of the team's 33 first-half points. After getting dominated in the paint against Penn State in State College, Pardon and the rest of the frontcourt players had much more success in that department Saturday. In the first half, NU outscored PSU 20-16 in the paint.
After halftime, the subsequent several minutes were more of the same. Penn State answered all of Northwestern's offensive spurts, and the Wildcats had trouble getting stops.
Then something changed. Law hit some jumpers. B-Mac nailed some of his patented floaters. And Pardon, dealing with a tough matchup against Mike Watkins, sent Allstate Arena into a frenzy with two thunderous dunks.
From there, Northwestern locked in defensively for what seemed like the first time all game. After shooting over 68 percent in the first half, Penn State went ice cold late, including a 1-of-11 stretch from the floor.
Northwestern's performance was far from perfect, and the win may not mean all that much in terms of the postseason. With the Wildcats' poor start to the season, the NCAA Tournament is probably out of the question, barring something extraordinary.
That doesn't mean Saturday's win was meaningless, though. Chris Collins hasn't lost the locker room. Things aren't completely falling apart. The fun came back.
1. Dererk Pardon set the tone
The impact of Pardon's two second half dunks was massive, but his interior defense might've been bigger. He limited Watkins to just eight points, and altered several other shots at the rim. Pardon's impact was felt early and late, which were two of the most important stretches of the game.
2. The big four delivered
Northwestern's four captains all scored in double figures, totaling 53 points. They didn't shoot the ball great, but they did enough.
3. Allstate Arena was pretty loud
Saturday was one of the loudest crowd's Allstate has seen all year. That's mostly because Northwestern gave the spectators something to cheer about, but still. The fans turned out.