EVANSTON — Miller Kopp was draining threes. Pete Nance had the hook shot going inside. Pat Spencer was getting the best of Anthony Cowan Jr. on both sides of the floor.
And yet if any of that led you to believe Northwestern (6-12, 1-7 B1G) would use its 14-point halftime lead to secure an upset win over No. 17 Maryland (15-4, 5-3), you haven’t watched enough Wildcat basketball this season.
Facing the prospect of losing its eighth game out of its last nine and further solidifying its position at the bottom of the conference, NU came out with perhaps its best start of the season. Ryan Young and Nance delivered in the paint, and the rest of the offense worked to find open look after open look, converting 60% of its 25 first-half field goals and two-thirds of shots from beyond the arc.
Coupled with a stifling defensive effort, the ‘Cats looked poised to continue the trend of road misery for Big Ten teams. The Terrapins had shot just 35% from the field in away games during conference play heading into the night, and they fared no better in the first 20 minutes of action, failing to get much going on inside and shooting a miserable 6-of-25. With gritty defense shutting down 6-foot-10 Jalen Smith and holding Maryland under 30% from three, NU played about as clean and dominant of a first half as it could have.
And then, the wheels came off the bus in an all-too-predictable fashion.
The Terrapin threes started falling as often as pedestrians on an icy Chicago sidewalk, and soon enough, the ‘Cats saw their lead dwindle and themselves on the wrong side of yet another close game. By the time the final buzzer sounded, NU found itself on the wrong end of a double digit defeat.
Unlike last season, this Northwestern team doesn’t feel like it deserves its last-place position in the conference. It’s hung tough in nearly all of its Big Ten games and finally appears to have a collection of players that can consistently compete in the best conference in college basketball.
But while there finally seems to be progress in terms of the quality of play on the court, close losses can only be passed off as steps in the right direction for a program that’s just won three Big Ten games in the last calendar year for so long.
For now, the season is a lost one. At 6-12 with some truly terrible losses on the resume, winning out (with the exception of winning the Big Ten tournament, of course) would likely not even be enough to give the Cats their second ever tournament appearance. But with Nance, Young, Boo Buie, Robbie Beran and Miller Kopp all underclassmen, the silver lining may be that these tough losses lead to experience that pays off down the line.
The talent seems to be there. The victories just aren’t. Kopp is already a deadly three-point option and appears to only be improving each game. Young and Nance already have begun to be a formidable duo inside, with their length and size allowing NU to hold its own against a league filled with quality big men.
Last year, the team was so bereft of reliable scoring options that the imminent departure of Dererk Pardon and Vic Law seemed to spell disaster for the Cats for the foreseeable future. This year, it feels far different, especially recently, and I suppose that’s what makes the steady stream of losses that much tougher to swallow.
Hope is abundant, but satisfying endings certainly aren’t.
Here are a few other takeaways from the 77-66 Northwestern loss:
Boo Buie Back
After missing the last six games with a lower body injury, Buie logged 16 minutes in the loss to Maryland. He had a tough outing, making just one of the seven shots he attempted, coming in the form of a deep three in the first half.
Despite the ugly box score, Buie looked quick and flashed some of the ankle-breaking moves that have made him such a special option at the point guard position in the past. He did appear to have a few defensive lapses, but after nearly a month-long absence, some of that was to be expected.
More efficient nights are sure to come, and the ‘Cats will be glad to have his services back.
Living at the foul line
Northwestern did a tremendous job defensively in the first half, but the one thing it struggled all game with was keeping the Terrapins off the free throw line.
Maryland made 9-of-10 first-half free throws before forcing the Cats into foul trouble early in the second half. NU put the Terrapins in the double bonus before the 10 minute mark of the second period of play, and the freebies it gave up at the charity stripe proved detrimental to hanging onto a lead.
Despite scoring just 12 points in the paint all game - compared to 30 such points from Northwestern - Maryland managed to make its presence felt inside in a different way: by making 26 of 29 free throws.
Life on the road
Playing away from home has not been kind to Big Ten teams thus far. Teams playing on the road in conference play are just 9-45, good enough for a miserable 16.6 win percentage.
It’s become a must to win at home this year in conference play, as shooting percentages typically plummet and slow starts are abundant for teams on the road. Maryland, for the most part, was no different on Tuesday, shooting just 35% from the field - on par with its previous road average - and finding itself in a 10-0 deficit in a blink of an eye. The aforementioned 26-of-29 performance from the line was likely the difference.
Still, something must be said about the likelihood that NU has the worst home court advantage in the Big Ten. Welsh-Ryan is almost always a snooze fest, frequenting a non-existent student section and an away crowd more raucous than the home supporters.
In fact, the only part of the Cats’ home stadium that could be considered an advantage is the fact that opposing players might not be motivated to play in front of such a sleepy crowd as opposed to the rowdy environments elsewhere in the Big Ten.
For a conference predicated on winning at home, this isn’t going to cut it.