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Northwestern looks to ride glimmer of momentum into Big Ten Tournament

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An epic Senior Day performance gave the team some much needed confidence heading into Indianapolis.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

This has not been a particularly fun basketball season.

Not for the players and coaches, who would obviously wanted to win more than eight games in 30 tries. Not for the fans, who had their hearts broken many times as the ‘Cats squandered away lead-after-lead in potential upsets. Not for anyone, really. In many ways, this has been a season to forget.

But for a little over two hours in Welsh-Ryan Arena last Saturday, something special happened.

On a day meant to honor those players that had no more left to give to the program, it was the young guys — the players that still do have something left to give — that led the team to the breakthrough they’d been waiting for.

Miller Kopp was the best player on the floor, pouring in 21 points on five-for-nine shooting from three and an offensive rating of 137 points per 100 possessions. Fellow sophomore Pete Nance splashed two threes at critical junctures of the game. Boo Buie overcame a scoreless first half in which he looked overwhelmed to lead all players in second-half points with 13. Even freshman big man Ryan Young got in on the action, with nine points, three blocks and an astronomically high offensive rating of 156.

One need look no further than Penn State’s win over Northwestern last year to see what a game like this can do for a young team. Pat Chambers’ 2019 squad was 0-10 in conference play and riding an eight-game losing streak when they came into Evanston and got their first Big TEN victory. They then finished the year winning seven of their last 11 games after that, and broke out this year (despite their recent slide) to solidify themselves as an NCAA Tournament team.

“I’ve been in [Collins’] shoes, and it’s just really challenging to keep your team focused and staying on the course,” said Chambers.

While Northwestern won’t have the opportunity to try and string together multiple regular-season wins this season like Penn State did in 2019, the two teams still resemble each other very closely. The Nittany Lions only had one senior giving significant contributions in Josh Reaves, while the ‘Cats only had two elder statesman (kind of) in the rotation with A.J. Turner and Pat Spencer

“Our guys feel really good about where we’re headed and what’s going to happen,” said Collins. “The guys kept coming back every day wanting to get better and I told them, ‘You’re putting yourself on the doorstep, just keep banging on that door and eventually you’re going to breakthrough.”

It’s a message that Collins has harped on after almost every loss during conference play. While beating Nebraska was good in order to finally snap the streak, that was more of an indictment on how poorly things are going down in Lincoln right now. It was this win over a team that has competed for the crown in the toughest conference in America that finally lifted the weight off the players’ shoulders.

“I think we’re playing some really good basketball right now. This win just shows all the work we’ve put in, and it should give us some momentum going into the Big Ten Tournament,” said Turner.

While it’s still unlikely that the ‘Cats will make serious noise in Indianapolis this week, what’s more important is that they have legitimate reason to think that they can do it.

“After our win [over Northwestern] last year, there started to be a belief in our locker room,” said Chambers, “That should help Chris. He’s going to go in there again, and he’ll have great belief that his team can get another one in the tournament.”

In a season where everything seemed bleak and futile, the Penn State win showed the players that their efforts were not in vain. There was a light at the end of the tunnel and they finally reached it.

“I really think these guys are going to do some great things in the future,” said Collins.

Here’s to hoping that he’s right.