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Finding positives in Northwestern’s brutal loss to Michigan State

The afternoon wasn’t a complete waste.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

So...Northwestern lost to Michigan State. That much was expected, but the manner in which the Wildcats did it was anything but.

NU came out energized and loose, made a ton of shots, and opened up a 27-point lead on the No. 2 team in America. The Cats led by 22 at half and were still up 21 a few minutes into the second half. Then it all went bad. The Spartans went on a 24-0 run as the teams completely flipped roles. Northwestern’s defense wasn’t as tough, it couldn’t buy a bucket, and with each Michigan State make, the mainly green crowd at Allstate Arena got louder and louder.

It was painful to watch, and must’ve been even more painful for the players in black who fought so hard to give themselves a golden opportunity — and promptly blew it. History was made. Chris Collins got memed. It was a bad day.

But fear not, loyal readers. I am here to tell you that despite how awful that game was, there are actually some positives to take from it. Let’s not be sad anymore.

Anthony Gaines was outstanding

With the success Collins had in assembling his 2018 recruiting class, it’s been mostly forgotten (forgiven?) that he botched the hell out of the 2017 recruiting cycle. Collins missed out on players left and right and came away with just one player, a three-star wing from New Hampshire. Gaines has shown flashes of potential this season, but we had been waiting for a true breakout game from the uber-athletic freshman.

It happened on Saturday. With Bryant McIntosh or Jordan Ash injured, Gaines made the first start of his college career and took full advantage of the opportunity. He played 37 minutes, scoring 10 points and adding 4 assists and 5 rebounds without turning the ball over once. Gaines worked extremely hard all game, and it paid off. He got to the rim, was an important defensive presence, and wowed the crowd with a huge dunk late in the first half.

“I think he showed today what’s to come with him,” Collins said. “The way he battled and competed. He’s a big part of our future.”

The one thing Gaines is missing is an outside jumpshot, but his 82 percent clip from the free throw line suggests that he could develop one over time. He’s a strong candidate to take Lindsey’s starting role next season and if he keeps playing like he did against Michigan State, he’ll keep that job for a while.

The first half was the most fun half of the season

Northwestern choked, so it didn’t end up mattering, but that first half was ridiculous. I came into the game with very low expectations, so it was almost surreal to witness what unfolded over the game’s first 20 minutes.

Vic Law was the catalyst. He knocked down an NBA-range three on his first shot of the game and stayed red hot throughout the entire half. When he’s on (tonight, second half against Gonzaga last year, second half against Creighton in November), Law can be one of the best shooters in the conference. His shot looks funky, but he’s excellent at squaring his body towards the basket and his long arms help him release the ball over almost anyone. When his third triple of the half died on the back of the rim and fell in, giving Northwestern a 30-8 lead, it seemed like it was just gonna be the Cats’ night. He finished the first half with 18 points and a career-high 5 assists.

It wasn’t just Law, though. Seniors Scottie Lindsey and Gavin Skelly combined for 4 threes of their own, Gaines balled out, and Isiah Brown even chipped in with a couple buckets. The thousands of Michigan State fans in the building were dead silent. Meanwhile, the rowdy Northwestern student section and the rest of the NU fans got louder and louder. I kept looking over at my friends on press row in amazement, trying to confirm that we were all seeing the same thing.

More than anything, it was so much fun. Amidst a disappointing season, Northwestern was playing like it did when it almost beat Gonzaga in Salt Lake City 11 months ago. It was dominating one of the best teams in the country. As Tom Izzo said after the game, it was “the Northwestern we all expected to see this year.” With only 8 scholarship players available and no one expecting them to win, the Wildcats came out and played with nothing to lose. They were loose, aggressive, and clearly fired up. They were having fun again, and that made watching their unbelievable start even more enjoyable.

“Our effort was terrific,” Collins said. “We played really hard, I thought we played inspired, thought we executed well. To put up 49 in a half shows what we’re capable of offensively.”

Even though Northwestern somehow found a way to lose, its performance in the first half was incredible, and it deserves to be remembered as the thrilling and encouraging 20 minutes of basketball that it was.

Law, who went NBA Jam “he’s on fire!” mode in the first half, will be back next season. So will Dererk Pardon. And Gaines. We saw what a Law-led, Bryant McIntosh-less team could look like when it’s firing on all cylinders.

And since the loss was basically inconsequential for this NU team, there’s no reason to be too hung up about the end result. While a win would’ve provided a signature victory in a tough season, it wouldn’t have meant anything for the Cats’ already-dead NCAA Tournament hopes. Unlike the football collapse in 2006, Michigan State was clearly the better team. So let’s forget about it.

In my new reality, the officials conferred at halftime and decided to end the game right there.