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Wildcats fade down the stretch yet again in avoidable loss

This refrain feels familiar.

EVANSTON, Illinois — After rolling over its first two opponents to begin the season, Northwestern built an 11-point halftime lead over Pitt, held an eight-point lead late with 3:43 left and then let the game slip away in the final 10 seconds with what would be the Panthers’ first and only lead of the game.

At this point, it may seem like fate for Wildcat games to end in such a fashion. It was an all-too-familiar feeling from last season, when the ‘Cats blew five games in which they had leads in the final five minutes. Their win probability in those losses were all over 73 percent and as high as 92.8 percent, per ESPN and Eric Rynston-Lobel. Wednesday night’s loss took the cake, with a postgame win probability of 93.1 percent.

“We led for 39 minutes and 55 seconds, but we didn’t close the deal,” said head coach Chris Collins. “There were a lot of positives along the way and a lot of things that we gotta get a lot better at, including closing the game.”

Closing was clearly a problem, but one could argue the game shouldn’t have even been as close as it was in the first place. Pitt started the game shooting 3-of-25 from the field, which was a big reason that the ‘Cats were able to build a lead over the first half.

NU, though, couldn’t capitalize on Pitt’s miscues. The Wildcats connected on only 11-of-30 attempts in the first half and shot 37 percent from the field overall. In addition to being unable to hold leads, Northwestern’s faulty shooting and questionable shot selection, especially early on, led to an inefficient night offensively.

“I thought in the first half we were a little overexcited, we got a little anxious,” Collins said. “We took a number of quick shots early in the game, being just really anxious and excited to play. I thought as the game wore on, we got some better shots in the second half.”

While the ‘Cats shot better in the second half, their defense broke down, allowing a whopping 49 points after the break. The Panthers out-rebounded the Wildcats by 20, including 19 offensive rebounds and 18 second chance points. Pitt’s Justin Champagnie, whose game-winning slam dunk put the Panthers ahead with 5.6 seconds left to play, recorded 20 points and 20 rebounds. The ‘Cats just couldn’t seem to box anyone out.

“That was something that we focused on coming into the game. They’re really athletic, they send a ton of guys to the glass,” center Ryan Young said. “We figured that they were going to be coming at us. We didn’t do as good of a job as we wanted to against that type of style where they’re crashing the boards, sometimes five guys every single possession.”

Failing to rebound and giving up leads go hand in hand. If you give the other team more chances to score, the more likely they are to come back. Opponents out-rebounded NU in 20 of its 23 losses last year. Northwestern was out-rebounded in all seven of its games that it lost by five or fewer points. And with the way Pitt shot in the first half, it was bound to regress to the mean and score more in the second.

“When we’re playing a team down the road in the Big Ten that has really athletic, long wings that crash the glass and they’re aggressive like Pitt was, we have to have all five guys coming to the boards, double teaming bigs,” Young said. “This is familiar to us from last year. We had a problem being out-rebounded by other teams and other teams hurting us by getting offensive rebounds. It’s just something we’re going to work on moving forward.”

With Big Ten only 10 days away when Northwestern plays host to No. 4 Michigan State on December 20, the ‘Cats may be in for a rude awakening after blowing out two Division I bottom feeders.

“You live and you learn. You play the game and you watch the film and you get to work and you hopefully get better,” Collins said. “ We have a couple opportunities next week to wrap up the non-league and get ready for Big Ten play, but certainly we’re going to have to improve in a lot of areas.”

Wednesday night could have been the close game bump NU got over with a tight win, proving to itself it could hold a lead. But they couldn’t. Let’s hope they can pull it together. As we’ve seen far too many times before, collapses like last night won’t fly in the country’s best college basketball conference.