EVANSTON, Ill. – About a week ago, Northwestern fell short at the buzzer against a Romeo Langford-led Indiana squad that, after defeating Louisville Saturday, looks bound for the NCAA Tournament. The ‘Cats two-point loss to fifth-ranked Michigan three days later stung even more. Northwestern played two tight games against tough competition, had chances to win both and ultimately dropped both.
And these two Big Ten losses came after a gauntlet of games in California over Thanksgiving and a matchup with Georgia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Altogether, playing seven games in 17 days takes a toll on a team.
“Playing a Mountain West team, an Atlantic 10 team, a Pac-12 team, an ACC team, two Big Ten teams and a Big East team in seventeen days is not easy… I knew from an energy standpoint this was going to be a difficult game,” Chris Collins said after Saturday’s game against DePaul.
Despite coming off two disappointing losses to Indiana and Michigan, Collins said his team was happy with how it played, but angry about the results.
With positivity brewing around the program and momentum building in performance, if not results, the ‘Cats had to beat DePaul, a team in a power conference but ranked outside KenPom’s top 100 teams.
But for 30 minutes, Northwestern seemed to be proving their head coach right about the heavy legs. The team looked tired. Offensive sets weren’t crisp, passes were lackadaisical and shots weren’t falling.
At the 9:48 mark of the second half, Northwestern trailed their inter-city rival by 15. Perhaps it was the 11 A.M start time or maybe it was tired legs, but Northwestern seemed to be sleepwalking its way through the first half — and potentially sleepwalking its way to a momentum-killing loss and a big, ugly stain on a NCAA Tournament resume.
Courtesy of a 25-0 run, the Wildcats won, though. The run — reminiscent of the 31-0 run in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament against Rutgers — was fueled by an atmosphere Allstate Arena could not have provided and by a player who could not suit up last year per NCAA transfer rules.
A.J Turner went 6-of-10 from beyond the arc, scoring a career-high 24 points and winning the Waldo Fisher-Frank McGrath Award, which is given to the most outstanding player of each DePaul-Northwestern game.
After Saturday, Northwestern can go forward in this season confident that it has another scorer capable of lifting the offense when Vic Law or Dererk Pardon can’t get it going. Even on a day when Pardon wasn’t getting a ton of touches, and Ryan Taylor looked invisible until late, Northwestern found ways to score. With the NU offense stagnant and struggling in the first half, it was Turner, who hasn’t shot well this season, who kept the offense afloat.
Turner said Collins kept telling him to shoot during his slump, stressing that he’s too good a shooter for his shots to continue to miss.
“I know [my shots] weren’t falling previously, but tonight I guess the law of averages came true,” Turner said.
Northwestern played Michigan close, it defeated a power conference opponent (Utah) on a “neutral” floor and it nearly beat Indiana in Assembly Hall, one of college basketball’s most hostile environments. After Saturday, Northwestern can be confident it’s capable of mounting a furious late-game come-back with its backs against the wall.
When the fire alarm went off at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and the Northwestern postgame press conference was moved to nearby Anderson Hall, Collins joked it was because of his team catching fire in the second half.
“I apologize, our guys got so hot down the stretch the fire alarms went off,” Collins joked.
Northwestern (7-3, 0-2 B1G) now has a week to rest before taking the floor vs Chicago State on December 17. That time off will feel much better after a much-needed win.