INDIANAPOLIS — In what will likely be one of the last college basketball games played in front of a normal capacity crowd, the Northwestern men’s basketball team saw its season come to an end.
Despite yet another encouraging first half performance, the Wildcats (8-23, 3-17 B1G) let things get away from them in the second, as the Minnesota Golden Gophers (15-16, 8-12) surged to a 74-57 win in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
While the first half offered up hope that the momentum from the senior day win over Penn State might have carried over, reality set in quickly in the second half. It was a fitting end to the season for a team that just wasn’t quite ready to compete in the brutal conference that is the Big Ten this season.
Both teams came out of the gates incredibly sluggish, forcing up bad shots to the tune of a combined 2-for-19 shooting performance in the game’s opening four minutes. The players made so many head-scratching on-court decisions that Coach Collins could be heard from the sideline saying, “What was that?” several times.
No matter how many times they failed to connect, the ‘Cats continued to be lured into ill-fated post-ups that almost always resulted in those same missed shots. However, an awkward but effective step-back three from Nance managed to cut the Minnesota lead to two at the under-12 media timeout.
Trailing 17-9 and off to a 3-of-17 start from the field, it was Robbie Beran who finally gave NU the spark it needed. He was able to rattle home a triple from the top of the arc after getting a favorable roll off the rim, and he followed that up with a weak-side block of Minnesota’s Gabe Kalscheur, which led to a fast break layup for the ‘Cats.
After the ugly start, the team finally settled into a comfortable rhythm on offense, as it knocked down six of its next nine attempts. Nance splashed home another three, Ryan Young and Jared Jones made contested paint shots, and the ‘Cats held a two-point advantage with a little under four minutes remaining in the half.
Even as the offense gradually grew more potent as the game progressed, it was the Wildcat defense that was the true story of the first half. After being eviscerated by the Golden Gophers for 44 first-half points in the two teams’ previous matchup, Northwestern’s defense held Minnesota to 29 points on 9-for-30 shooting. Oturu was the only scoring outlet for the Gophers early on as he scored 15 of Minnesota’s 29 points before the break. He finished with a game-high 24 points on only 10 shots.
Minnesota came out of the locker room hungry and determined, connecting on five of its first eight shots and capitalizing off of careless NU turnovers to take a 41-36 lead early in the second period.
The game looked to be getting out of hand, as the Gophers continued to pound the ball inside with Oturu and Alihan Demir, while also getting three-point contributions from Kalscheur and Marcus Carr. Nance managed to bank home another three (his third on the night) to try and keep the ‘Cats within striking distance, as he finished with a team-high 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting.
But after Nance’s three, everything fell apart.
Northwestern suffered a barrage of threes from the Gopher star and Payton Willis, failing to make open looks themselves and quickly trailed Minnesota 59-43 with 10 minutes remaining.
It became clear in the second half that things were not meant to be.
Miller Kopp, the team’s most reliable shooter, kept bricking open threes, and Minnesota’s Marcus Carr buried dagger after dagger, no matter how well the ‘Cats contested his shots.
The lead ballooned all the way up to 20, Coach Pitino sent in his reserves, and the ‘Cats continued to fight hard, but of course, came up short. Chris Collins made sure to call a timeout in the final minutes to sub out seniors Pat Spencer and A.J. Turner, both of whom were greeted with embraces by every coach and player on the Northwestern sideline.
The men’s basketball season is officially over. All that’s left to do is watch the women’s team compete in the tournament from the security of our homes. Stay safe everybody.