That was 2006 all over again.
Facing the same school that Northwestern blew an NCAA-record 38-3 lead against in football 12 years ago, the Wildcats pulled off a similarly epic choke job on the basketball court on Saturday afternoon.
Despite holding a 27-point lead in a shocking first half, Northwestern (15-13, 6-9) lost to No. 2 Michigan State (26-3, 14-2) 65-60 at Allstate Arena. Behind 53 points from their starting lineup, the Spartans staged an impressive comeback to keep their spot at the top of the Big Ten.
After a hot-shooting first half, the Wildcats went incredibly cold, missing 17-straight shots as the Spartans took control of the game. Northwestern scored 11 points in the entire second half.
Vic Law was an offensive juggernaut in the first half, posting 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting, including four triples. In McIntosh’s absence, he and Scottie Lindsey assumed the bulk of the ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities. They did not disappoint early, coming out firing to start the game. The Wildcats led by as many as 27 points in the first half, shooting 60 percent from the field. They also only had one turnover, a surprise given the team’s struggles in the past to initiate offense without its senior leader.
On the other end, the Wildcats’ zone flummoxed the Spartans early. Despite all their singular talent, the Spartans couldn’t get anything going in the isolation game. All of their field goals in the first half were assisted. Michigan State also had trouble getting inside, leaving the team’s perimeter players to launch prayers over the lanky arms of Law, Lindsey and Anthony Gaines. When the Spartans were able to attack the interior, they didn’t have much success, shooting 2-of-8 on layups. As a result, the Spartans shot a lousy 33.3 percent in the first half.
Turnovers also plagued the Spartans. At one point, Michigan State was called for a five-second violation because the team couldn’t get the ball inbounds underneath Northwestern’s basket. The team was also lazy with its hit-ahead passes in transition, throwing a couple passes nowhere near anyone and out of bounds. The Wildcats took advantage, scoring 10 points unanswered off of turnovers. They also outscored the Spartans 7-0 in fast-break points in the first half.
The only thing Northwestern did wrong in the first half was foul, which they did a lot. With only nine players dressed, the Wildcats committed 12 fouls. The Spartans’ Nick Ward was the primary beneficiary, getting seven free throws before the break.
The tide turned dramatically after halftime. The Wildcats had a rough second half, shooting just 3-of-25 from the field and committing 6 turnovers. The lack of a true point guard reared its ugly head for Northwestern, who was incapable of getting good shots in the halfcourt. Meanwhile, Michigan State found its offensive groove, going on a 21-0 run in less than nine minutes to tie the game at 53.
With a shortened rotation and lots of foul trouble, the Wildcats found themselves gassed for most of the second half. After his first half explosion, Law didn’t score in the second half until he canned a triple with 11.4 seconds left to cut Michigan State’s lead to three. Lindsey, the team’s next-best shot creator, went scoreless.
The Spartans took their first lead of the game with 5:26 to play when Jaren Jackson, Jr. converted an and-1 layup. They never relinquished it, and so the Wildcats suffered their second-straight disappointing loss. Michigan State is a much better team than Rutgers, but giving up a 27-point lead at home is inexcusable, regardless of how good the opponent is.
Bryant McIntosh missed just the second game in his Northwestern career with a shoulder injury he initially sustained against Maryland on Feb. 10. While the team sorely missed his presence against Nebraska in early January, the play of Gaines made McIntosh’s absence less painful. Making his first career start, Gaines had 10 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Northwestern will play Maryland (17-11, 6-9) on Monday in the second of the three-game homestand for the Wildcats. The teams played earlier this month, with the Terrapins winning 73-57.