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Northwestern gave it everything it had, but the ending was far too familiar

The Wildcats came up short in crunch time against Penn State.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Penn State vs Northwestern Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — The stage was new. The stakes were higher. But on Thursday night, the script was the same. The last act in a miserable play concluded in the same fashion as so many before it.

Undermanned and both physically and emotionally banged up, Northwestern valiantly traded blows with a favored Penn State team for over 35 minutes at Madison Square Garden. Then a familiar theme reared its ugly head down the stretch as the Wildcats fell 65-57 for their seventh loss in a row.

With 4 minutes and 36 seconds remaining in a tie game, Bryant McIntosh swished a fadeaway 17-footer from the baseline. It would be the final make of his career and the last Northwestern field goal until a meaningless layup in the waning seconds of another demoralizing defeat.

Following that basket, the Wildcats’ possessions resulted in a miss on the front end of a 1-and-1, an offensive foul, then four straight jumpers that clanged harmlessly off the rim. Penn State scored 13 consecutive points during that time to secure a victory and pull the plug on Northwestern’s calamitous season.

Reasons abound for why this season went the way it did, principally among them being the Wildcats’ tendency to endure lengthy scoring droughts at inopportune times. Time and time again, the offense would grind to a halt and go several minutes without scoring. In road losses to Indiana and Michigan, Northwestern’s dry spells broke 7 minutes. Against Michigan State, the team put together its 11-minute, 31-second magnum opus.

This latest disappearing act lasted a mere 3:47, but came when Northwestern could least afford it. The win — and a berth in the quarterfinals — was hanging in the balance, waiting for a team to claim it. Just as they had done in the deciding stretches of myriad games this year, especially during this season-ending losing streak, the Wildcats watched as Penn State seized the moment.

“We have to be better in those situations,” Chris Collins said. “This season we didn’t take advantage of those opportunities. We had our chances. We had a stretch there in the middle of the league, we were 6-6 and we lost three or four games in a row that were right there for the taking. Closing out games has got to be a focus of ours if we want to get back to where we want to go in this conference.”

In the late stages of this game, Penn State’s biggest advantage was that it had a healthy star player to turn to. With Northwestern up 54-52 after McIntosh’s jumper, the Nittany Lions hit three threes in a row. Tony Carr hit two of them and assisted the other.

“That’s what you do at the end of games, like what Penn State did, you go to Tony Carr and you play through him, and he makes plays,” Collins said.

Due to injuries and fouls, Northwestern didn’t have its own player to counter with. McIntosh, who was that guy so often last year, was dealing with a serious shoulder injury, though even when healthy this season, it seemed like his performance in clutch situations regressed. Vic Law was out with an injury. Scottie Lindsey tried to make a play with his team down 1, but was called for a charge, his fifth foul, and had to watch from the bench as McIntosh, Aaron Falzon, and Anthony Gaines missed threes that could’ve gotten the Wildcats back in it.

Looking at the issue from a season-long perspective, at least one player thinks Northwestern lost its aggressiveness in crunch time.

“It’s just a mental breakdown,” Gavin Skelly said. “When shots don’t fall for us and the other team kind of picks it up a notch, I feel like we stay stagnant, we don’t pick up our juice to the next level, and I think that really hurts us. Towards the end of the game, teams start fighting for the win, the time gets closer, and we play — last year we broke it, this year we fell back into it — we play not to lose instead of to win. That’s just a mentality thing that we need to break through.”

As the losses piled up, the weight of a letdown season increasing with each one, it’s not hard to understand how doubt could begin to creep into the heads of the players late in games. In this specific instance, Northwestern players were aware they hadn’t won in nearly a month and had blown three straight double-digit leads a couple weeks ago. At that point, losing might’ve almost seemed inevitable. As a result, you try to play to avoid that, and you watch another close game slip away. The mental side of sports is impossible to quantify but plays a massive role in the outcome of every game.

Northwestern has plenty to be proud of from its one appearance in this Big Ten Tournament. It came in with two rotation players missing and several more playing through ailments — Skelly joked that he is the only one on the team who isn’t banged up — and battled all night.

“We had every reason to kind of lay down when they hit us with a little spurt (in the second half),” an emotional Collins said. “A lot of teams get to this point and they don’t see a lot of hope, and you kind of just fade to black and you want the season to be over. But that’s not who these guys have been. I’m not surprised. We kept fighting.”

In the end, though, what the Wildcats were able to do for 35 minutes didn’t amount to anything. All that really matters is whether or not you come out on top when the final buzzer sounds, and 17 times this year, they didn’t.

If it wants to bounce back from this abject failure of a season in 2018-19, Northwestern — minus its two best shot creators — will have to re-learn how to take control of close games and turn them into victories.