EVANSTON, Illinois — It’s going to be a long year, Northwestern fans.
Facing possibly the worst opponent they’ll see all season to start the year, NU suffered an upset defeat at the hands of the 18-point underdog Merrimack Warriors. It’s one of the biggest upsets that will occur in the NCAA this year, and marks Merrimack’s first-ever D1 win.
Pete Nance led NU with 18 points on 7-for-15 shooting, and Miller Kopp followed up the Ohio native’s number with 12, eight of which came in the first two minutes. Pat Spencer was the final Northwestern player to score double digits. All other Wildcats combined for just 18.
The Warriors’ two man combo of Juvaris Hayes and Devin Jensen were the main factors in upsetting the ‘Cats. Hayes finished with 19 points, and Jensen tallied another 23 points with seven made threes.
Northwestern found early success on offense by exploiting big-to-big passes on the inside, but the ‘Cats struggled to shake the Warriors, who got most of their points off three pointers and foul shots.
It only got worse for the Wildcats as the half went on, with Merrimack picking the NU defense apart, and the Warriors took their first lead with eight minutes left in the first half, 26-24. The Wildcats’ lack of defensive discipline was notoriously bad, as Merrimack’s offense consistently generated good looks from deep and wide open layups off of simple backdoor cuts.
The teams battled back and forth for the rest of the half, as the ‘Cats seemingly had no answer for Jensen, who lit the ‘Cats up for 17 points and five made threes in the first half, and trailed 36-35 at the break.
Northwestern had a huge size advantage over Merrimack and made sure to utilize that edge in the first half, scoring almost all of their points in the paint, and surprise starter Spencer looked comfortable and productive on the court.
But the defense, which was the saving grace of this team the past two years, looked absolutely dreadful in the first half. It had nothing to do with talent or athleticism, but rather a terrible lack of discipline on the part of NU defenders. They made very basic mistakes and Anthony Gaines, the team’s most experienced player, only played eight minutes due to foul trouble.
The first five minutes of the second half was the Spencer show, as he nailed multiple floaters and got the rather quiet crowd engaged for a few minutes. But the ‘Cats still couldn’t create separation, and Jensen continued to bury three pointers from several feet behind the line.
Nance started to play like a four-star recruit in the second half, punishing his smaller opposition inside. Nance and Spencer together combined to score 17 of the Wildcats’ first 20 points of the second half.
Northwestern’s defense improved in the second half, as those Merrimack struggled to get the rim off those same backdoor cuts. That said, the defense still wasn’t great, and did not registered a single steal till only six minutes remained in the game. It was an improvement from wash-your-eyes-out-with-bleach-it’s-so-bad, to just plain bad.
Merrimack would not let up, however, and at the under-four media timeout, the 18-point underdogs held a three-point lead. The ‘Cats botched several opportunities to score late, missing foul shots, committing brutal turnovers and blowing makable layups. In contrast, Merrimack made all the right plays and calmly drilled free throws to close out the upset.
A game that Northwestern fans hoped would be an easy tune-up for the inexperienced team slowly but surely turned into an agonizing loss. The ‘Cats were already projected to have a very rough time in a loaded Big Ten this year, but things might be even worse than we thought.