Northwestern’s biggest problem last year was a lack of production from their guards, and through four games this year, it was more of the same.
That certainly changed in Fort Myers on Monday night.
Pat Spencer was by far the best player on the court in the Wildcats’ most impressive team performance of the season.
The grad transfer and former lacrosse star stole the show for NU with 23 points and 8 assists, leading the Wildcats (3-2) to a thorough 78-51 win against Bradley (4-2) in the semifinal round of the 2019 Fort Myers Tip-off. The win sets up a date for NU with Pitt on Wednesday with the tournament crown on the line.
Northwestern took control of the game on both ends of the floor, but offense was the story of the night for a team that’s had some dismal shooting performances to start the year. The Wildcats put together their best offensive outing of the season, finishing 52.6 percent from the floor. NU also added 10 threes on 50 percent shooting from behind the arc.
It was a game of runs early on, with Bradley taking a quick 6-0 lead, only for the ‘Cats to respond with an 11-0 run of their own. The run was keyed not by the hybrid zone we’ve grown accustomed to, but by a swarming man defense — this being the first time Northwestern has started in man since the Merrimack debacle.
NU actually switched to a 2-3 zone after the under-12 media timeout and promptly gave up an and-one layup. They were back in man on the next possession.
The ‘Cats offense was clicking early on too, fueled by three triples from Miller Kopp and myriad high-arcing floaters from Spencer.
Contrary to the up-and-down nature of this team through the season’s first four contests, Northwestern closed the final eight minutes of the first half on a 16-4 run and took a commanding 39-21 lead into the break. Spencer led the way with 12 first half points.
The Braves were overwhelmed and just could not make the shots that the ‘Cats continued to hit. As a team, Bradley was 6-for-27 from the field at half, while Kopp and Spencer alone were 9-for-12 for a combined 23 points. The Braves didn’t make a field goal for the final 10:30 of the first half.
Spencer continued to lead the attack in the final twenty minutes. He hit all three attempts from deep in the period (including one that hit nearly every part of the rim) and constantly got middle penetration that bent Bradley’s defense out of shape. Ryan Young was the beneficiary of Spencer’s drives, adding 11 second half points of his own.
Defensively, Northwestern continued to fluster Bradley with its superior length, constantly forcing the Braves into contested, long two-pointers with the shot clock ticking away. Collins switched the ‘Cats back into that hybrid 2-2-1 zone at the ten minute mark of the second half, a smart tactic to employ in case the Braves began to figure out the defense NU had run for the whole game.
Kopp and Ryan Young each added 13 points for the ‘Cats, with AJ Turner leading the way off the bench with nine. Pete Nance had seven points, seven boards, plus three blocks, and Anthony Gaines had six and nine rebounds in what was a complete team performance. Elijah Childs and Darrell Brown had 14 and 13 points respectively for the Braves.
Northwestern has now beaten the two best teams on their schedule to date. The ‘Cats were actually a three-point underdog prior to tip-off tonight, which makes sense considering Bradley is experienced and recently beat the Radford team that dismantled NU just last week.
Northwestern will face Pittsburgh (5-2) on Wednesday night. If Spencer and the ‘Cats can continue the trend of beating the best teams on their schedule, they have a chance to win their first tournament title since the 2012 South Padre Island Invitational.