EVANSTON — For the seventh home game in a row, Chris Collins headed to the podium postgame in a familiar manner, having to address the media and answer questions after his team’s 12th straight loss.
“It was tough to lose tonight,” Collins said in his opening statement — six words that fans have grown accustomed to hearing quite a bit this season.
But this time around at the podium, the head coach showed some more positivity compared to the dejected and defeated one that has become consistent at postgame pressers.
“We met a little bit about how we wanted to finish this thing out, how we wanted to continue to show growth and continue to fight to find a way to find a few wins if we could along the way, but also to set ourselves up,” Collins said. “I thought the effort, the fight, all those things were there at a really high level.”
Call it ‘coach speak’, and that might be all it is at the end of the day. But Thursday night’s loss to in-state rival Illinois showed that the cellar-dwelling Wildcats do in fact have some fight left in them.
Last Sunday’s 83-57 defeat at the hands of Minnesota saw the ‘Cats lacking in poise and focus throughout. In a season with so many gut-wrenching close losses, the blowout seemed to be another breaking point in the tragedy of the 2019-2020 Northwestern men’s basketball team.
After an embarrassing loss like that, Collins needed his team to reset ahead of its penultimate home tilt against a tournament-bound Illini team whose roster features two potential NBA players. It never felt like the Wildcats would win or have a chance on Thursday night, but they hung around in what was essentially a road atmosphere.
“We got down 14,” Collins said. “We could have laid down. We didn’t. We kept fighting and we got it to seven. We were down 11 early in the first half, we scored six straight points,” he continued, mentioning the ‘Cats’ cutting another major first half deficit where the Illini raced to a 29-16 lead at the end of the first half. “I thought we kept fighting back and kept ourselves within distance.”
The offense showed more life than we’ve seen in the past, matching its highest home point total since December’s win against SIU-Edwardswville. The defense, on the other hand, was another story.
The Illini’s two heralded talents, Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu, garnered the majority of the attention of Northwestern defenders. Those two combined for 20 of Illinois’s first 22 points, all which came from mid-range jumpers or layups. Cockburn’s size and interior presence saw him score early against the likes of Ryan Young and Pete Nance. Despite foul trouble early in the second half, the freshman finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
Dosunmu, who finished with 21 points and shot 59 percent from the field, torched NU in transition, including an impressive lay-in where he put the ball behind his back and brought it back around to evade two Northwestern defenders.
Where the ‘Cats were most exposed on defense in the second half was guarding Alan Griffin. Illinois’ sixth man, also its best three-point shooter, was afforded many open looks and made the Wildcats pay. He racked up 24 points in a mere 21 minutes, shooting nine-of-11 from the field and six-of-eight from downtown.
Collins blamed this failure on miscommunication when his squad played a mixed defense of both zone and man. His frustration was openly communicated when he held up six fingers at Robbie Beran, representative of Griffin’s six made three-pointers.
Despite these momentum-breaking runs where it appeared that the ‘Cats were in the midst of another embarrassing loss, Northwestern responded with runs of its own to keep Illinois within arms’ reach. Pat Spencer yet again led NU in scoring and looked comfortable at the helm of the offense.
Pete Nance also played a solid game, an encouraging sign to those hoping for a sophomore renaissance for the former four-star recruit. He finished with 12 points and was more than willing to go toe-to-toe with a great interior defender in Cockburn on any given possession.
“[Nance’s] got a unique skillset,” Collins said. “I want him to be a guy that’s versatile. I want him to be a guy who can go out on the floor and make threes and drive the ball from the top of the key, but also, if he’s guarded and they switched things, he can go down in the post and score and get some fouls down there.”
When all was set and done, a packed Welsh-Ryan crowd gave the road team a standing ovation as Northwestern walked off the floor in defeat once again. Northwestern showed signs of life in what has been a season without many positives, but none of those positives have been strong enough to hold off the ‘Cats from enduring their worst losing streak since 2000.
With three games remaining on its schedule, including a road date against a Nebraska squad who they have already defeated, Northwestern has an opportunity to end its season on a positive note and put an end once and for all to this dreadful streak.
“These guys are gonna do it man,” Collins stressed after the game. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that this core group of guys are going to become a really good team.”