Like he has been all season, Chris Collins was raw at the podium postgame.
For the first time in a while though, he finally had something to smile about.
“Understatement of the year is it was a big win for us,” Collins said following his squad’s 62-57 win over Nebraska.
Northwestern (6-9, 1-4 B1G) snapped its five-game losing streak over Fred Hoiberg’s Nebraska Cornhuskers (7-9, 2-3 B1G) Saturday, and Collins is right in highlighting the importance of the win. A win over a struggling Nebraska team isn’t going to dramatically alter the course of Northwestern’s season, but that doesn’t make it meaningless.
This young NU team needed this win.
First off, the Wildcats were ultimately able to pull out a win down the stretch, and that itself is a huge accomplishment. The Wildcats were 1-11 in their last 12 games decided by 10 or less points, so fighting off a late comeback and securing a home victory is a huge confidence booster.
Coming into this game, the ‘Cats had previously hung around against strong opponents like Michigan State, but failed to finish winnable games against DePaul and Hartford. The midweek collapse of a ten-point second half lead at Indiana added insult to injury.
“We need to make winning plays,” first-year Robbie Beran said after a career-high performance. “We just needed to get stops.”
It may sound simple, but Beran is right. This team has showed its ability to hang around with some of the Big Ten’s best, and Saturday was about putting it all together for a complete 60 minutes, even if it wasn’t against the toughest competition they’ll face.
In the face of injuries to defensive stalwart Anthony Gaines and true freshman scorer Boo Buie, the ‘Cats needed big performances from some of their younger talents as well as their veteran players. The young Northwestern squad came out of the gate hot to a relatively crowded Welsh Ryan Arena, scoring 42 points and hitting 8 out of 14 triples in the first half, a season high in both points scored and three-pointers made in a half.
“We wanted to let everyone know just by watching us that we wanted [this win] really bad,” said Kopp.
The big first half saw the ‘Cats go into the break up 15, but this was never going to be an easy win for Northwestern.
Nebraska cut the lead right out of the gate, gradually inching closer while more effectively defending the Wildcat shooters, who followed up a hot first half from deep by going only 2-for-15 from beyond the arc in the final twenty minutes. Up by six with two minutes remaining, things got ugly, and it nearly looked as if Northwestern was doomed for another heartbreaking loss.
The ‘Cats proceeded to miss three consecutive front end free throws from Ryan Young, Miller Kopp, and Pat Spencer. A bank three from the Huskers’ Cam Mack cut the ‘Cats lead to just three with 51 seconds left, and a Welsh-Ryan crowd who minutes earlier had been anticipating the ‘Cats’ first Big Ten win of the season suddenly were fraught with the possibility of their team once again failing to finish off a game.
However, unlike the meltdowns against Indiana and Hartford, the late-game mistakes which plagued the ‘Cats did not undo them.
Another missed three-point jumper from Pete Nance with 24 seconds left gave the Huskers an opportunity to tie the game with a triple. However, Pat Spencer managed to tip Dachon Burke, Jr.’s, shot on the ensuring Nebraska possession. A Miller Kopp defensive rebound and two made free throws sealed the game for the ‘Cats.
Collins lauded Kopp for his resiliency in the final minutes.
“He got three open ones in a row. He took them, missed them. He missed the front end, yet he still went up there after missing those four shots and he went up and made the two biggest ones,” Collins said. “He’s going to be in this situation a lot in his career.”
Kopp led the team in scoring for the third time this season, hitting double figures for the 11th time.
Northwestern also got a huge boost from Spencer, who continues to come into his own with Buie sidelined indefinitely. The former lacrosse start hit double figures for the third consecutive game. Beran, now a starter, also scored a career-high 10 points along with 10 rebounds, recording his first career double-double.
“Robbie’s a freshman. Ryan Young’s a freshman. Miller’s a sophomore. Pete’s a sophomore. We got a lacrosse player handling the point. This is pretty awesome,” said Collins.
It may not be awesome all the time, and there will certainly be more struggles to come as the season rolls along and the ‘Cats remain banged up, but for now, NU finally has a Big Ten victory to build off of. And for a young team relying on relatively inexperienced players in a deep, talented conference, the importance of this win cannot be understated.