When Northwestern suffered its worst loss of the Chris Collins era last Friday, the head coach said he told the team they’d have two options moving forward — “lay down, or get off the pavement and fight.”
If last night was any indication, the Wildcats are choosing the latter.
After an ugly opening night performance, Northwestern (1-1) battled its way to a critical bounce back victory over Providence (2-1) on Wednesday night, prevailing 72-63 over a strong Big East program that made the NCAA tournament in four of the last five seasons.
The Wildcats looked sloppy at times and nearly squandered a 20-point second half lead, but solid zone defense throughout the game and huge nights from Anthony Gaines and Ryan Young ultimately lifted NU to a massive home non-conference win.
“Obviously, this was a huge win for us,” Collins said postgame. “That’s probably the understatement of the year.”
The lethargy and nervousness Northwestern played with against Merrimack was nowhere to be seen in the team’s second contest of the season. The young group certainly had its fair share of miscues, but Collins praised his squad overall for coming out more loose, confident, and energized after an extremely disappointing opener.
But back to the miscues for a second.
The fact that Northwestern controlled this game from the start and ended up winning by nine is nothing short of remarkable when you take a look back at the stat sheet. The Wildcats turned the ball over 20 times compared to Providence’s ten, while also allowing 20 offensive boards (though only 15 second chance points) to the much more physical and experienced Friar team. Providence took 72 shots. NU had just 47.
Although there were a few strong individual performances of note (Pat Spencer, when not in foul trouble, impressed in addition to the aforementioned duo), and some lights-out shooting (specifically in the first half) certainly helped, resilience was the true story of the night for a Northwestern squad that battled successfully against a talented, veteran opponent after looking like it might led a 20-point second half lead slip.
Despite leading by double digits for the first portion of the second half, the Friars cut the NU lead with a 14-0 run to six points. With just over two minutes left to play, the ‘Cats clung to just a three point advantage. But solid free throw shooting and some impressive offense helped close things out.
“Games like tonight are huge for our young guys’ development,” Collins said. “When things don’t go well, we’ve had a real tendency to fold. In a span of a 40-minute game, there are going to be runs. The house can’t be built of cards at that point.”
When they needed to most, the Wildcats gelled and showed an impressive level of maturity for a team with their youth — not to mention one that had struggled with turnovers and miscues all night. The contributions came from all over the floor on both sides of the ball, a sign of a true team win.
“We came together Sunday, looked each other in the eyes and just said ‘this can’t happen’,” Anthony Gaines said after the victory about the team’s response to the embarrassing Merrimack loss. “We said we had to be better moving forward, and I think that showed [last night]. That first game wasn’t our team.”
While Gaines deserves a ton of credit for his energy and leadership on both ends of the floor, and Young’s second half offensive excellence was crucial, Collins’ gameplan can’t be overlooked as a key catalyst towards the change in performance. After giving up 71 points to Merrimack, the seventh-year head coach elected to go with multiple zone looks on defense that forced Providence to beat the ‘Cats with the outside shot, which the Friars failed to do.
“When you have low moments, there are times when you just have to shuffle the deck,” the head coach said. “When you’re trying to flush something and move on, just to make some kind of change is good, and we also felt [the zone] would be a good gameplan.”
That change paid off.
The defense was far from perfect, but it paid dividends in allowing Northwestern to avoid what would’ve been some very difficult one-on-one showdowns inside for Young and the rest of this youthful frontcourt.
“We switched our defenses up to limit some matchup problems,” he said. You gotta give up something, and we were willing to give up some open looks from three.”
The defense certainly caught a break, with Providence shooting just under 23 percent from behind the arc and 30.6 percent overall. However, the Friars’ offensive struggles shouldn’t take away from the ‘Cats’ showing.
The bottom line is that Northwestern was the better team from start to finish against what should be a good Providence team. That alone should spark some significant hope among fans, despite the fact that this team will continue to experience growing pains as the season progresses.
“It gives us confidence moving forward,” said redshirt first year Ryan Young, who dropped 16 points in just his second ever college basketball game. “We know what type of team we can be, but we can also learn from this...We gave up a ton of offensive rebounds, they were getting to the paint at will. There’s a lot that we can learn and a lot that we can get better at.”
For now, Northwestern should feel comfortable and confident knowing that this team, despite a real lack of experience across nearly every contributor, has the ability to play well and earn a win against an impressive opponent even when they aren’t at their best.
A quality victory like this one doesn’t completely wipe away the atrocity that was Merrimack, but at the very least, we now know Chris Collins’ team is made of something.
“We can’t overreact to tonight, just like we can’t overreact to what happened last Friday,” Collins said. “It’s one game in a long, long journey, but it puts us back on the right track as we move forward into our next one.”