Following an extremely disappointing performance on Tuesday night, the ‘Cats needed to bounce back in a big way against Norfolk State Friday.
And defensively, they certainly did.
With an ugly game against Radford in the rearview mirror, Northwestern (2-2) battled back from a slow start and eventually pulled away from the Spartans (3-2), ultimately winning 70-59.
Northwestern opened up the game in a 1-3-1 zone, which saw major success against Providence but was met with fierce opposition tonight. Norfolk State opened up a quick 18-8 lead on the ‘Cats in the first seven minutes of the game thanks to some impressive outside shooting, with open spaces opening up all over the NU zone.
Not long after, the ‘Cats switched back to their more traditional man-to-man, immediately stifling the Spartans’ offense by holding them to zero points over a six and a half minute stretch late in the first half.
“I thought [Norfolk State] did a really good job to start the game kind of attacking our zone,” head coach Chris Collins said postgame. “I felt like our energy needed a little boost, so I thought us going to a man and kind of picking up a little bit was huge.”
Aside from their hot start, Norfolk State struggled to make shots throughout the game, going 21 for 51 (41%) on the night from the field. The Spartans also shot just 10 for 20 (50%) on free throws.
“You know, they came out of the hole gunning,” sophomore forward Pete Nance said. “They were shooting the ball really, really well, but we knew that it’s hard for any team to really keep up that percentage and pace of shooting the entire game.”
On top of allowing a season-low 59 points, the ‘Cats forced 15 turnovers out of the Spartans on Friday, and managed to garner 16 points off of those changes in possession. Northwestern had created an average of 11 turnovers per contest entering last night’s game, with their previous season high of just 12 coming against Radford.
Meanwhile, on the offensive side of the ball, though the Wildcats were far from perfect, an impressive performance at the free throw line picked up a lot of the slack. Norfolk State fouled the ‘Cats 25 times throughout the game, and Northwestern fully took advantage of their size advantage and the sloppy play of the Spartans, converting a whopping 27 of 30 free throw attempts (90%), also by far a season high.
This tremendous free throw shooting night starred redshirt first year center Ryan Young, who sank 11 of his 12 shots from the charity stripe.
“Getting to the free throw line in the first half was huge, you know, we were struggling to make shots,” Collins said. “Ryan Young got fouled a bunch, Boo Buie ended up with seven free throws, Pete with four, so sometimes when you’re struggling to make shots, going to the line and seeing it go in a couple of times helps your confidence.”
The ‘Cats shot just 19 for 56 (34%) throughout the entire game, including 5 for 22 (23%) from deep. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Norfolk State’s foul trouble was what kept Northwestern within striking distance in the early part of the contest, and it eventually helped them close things out too.
Of course, the ‘Cats’ tremendous defensive effort arguably remained the key factor on both fronts, thanks to the departure it marked from a more inconsistent effort against Radford.
The young Wildcats learned a valuable lesson on Friday. In the midst of arguably their worst-shooting night of the season, NU found a way to score when they needed to, and, most importantly, used a controlling effort on the defensive side of the ball to keep a feisty mid-major opponent at arms length.
“It’s good to get a win tonight,” Collins said. “I was really proud of the guys [and] the way we responded, especially because we got down early.”
That impressive ability to respond, despite plenty of early struggles for this Northwestern team, has now surfaced twice already this season. If the Wildcats want to continue to battle the way they have early this year over the rest of the non-conference slate and into Big Ten play, defensive-driven efforts like Friday night’s certainly seem to be the way forward.