EVANSTON — They did it. They finally did it. They finally beat a Big Ten team that doesn’t rhyme with “Rebraska.”
It took until the final game of the regular season, but Northwestern (8-22, 3-17 B1G) picked up its biggest win of the year Saturday, toppling No. 20 Penn State (21-10, 11-9 B1G) 80-69 on Senior Day. On a day designed to honor the team’s veterans, it was sophomore Miller Kopp that stole the show with a game-high 21-point performance in which he made a career-high five threes.
As for the seniors, all three contributed in different facets of the game. A.J. Turner chipped in eight points and Pat Spencer dished out six assists while Tino Malnati had his own cheering section in his first career start for the Wildcats.
It doesn’t erase the pain brought on by the previous 22 losses, and it doesn’t change the fact that Northwestern’s season will most likely end on Wednesday against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. However, for a team that has desperately needed something hopeful to latch on too, today’s victory was one heck of a silver lining.
The ‘Cats opened the game on a blistering 10-0 run behind a raucous senior day crowd. The fans were particularly fired up for Malnati’s first career start, as the walk-on senior was all over the court causing deflections, snagging rebounds and inspiring his teammates. Malnati finished the day +10 after heading to the bench at the under-16 timeout and not returning until the game’s closing seconds.
Even after the hot start forced Penn State head coach Pat Chambers to call an early timeout, NU continued to build its lead behind three-pointers from Miller Kopp, Pete Nance, and A.J. Turner. The Wildcats let 16-4 lead at the under-12 media break.
No matter what the Nittany Lions did, they could not get their offense going, as they started 1-for-13 from the field and committed four turnovers. The Northwestern defense held them to just four points in the game’s first ten minutes.
But then, as if it were scripted, the NU lead disappeared. The next two minutes featured an onslaught of scoring from the visitors. Penn State scored on five straight possessions, including deep three-pointers from Myreon Jones and Myles Dread, to cut the Wildcats’ lead down to six.
Jones and Dread continued to light it up from deep and get the Nittany Lions back in the game, finishing with 12 and 14 points respectively on a combined 8-26 (!) shooting from three. However, while not matching them shot for shot, the ‘Cats also turned to the three-point line to carry their offense, as Kopp and Robbie Beran cashed in from behind the arc.
Chris Collins’ squad struggled to keep impromptu-starting big man John Harrar off the boards, as he grabbed several rebounds, continued to get to the foul line and finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds.
By halftime, Northwestern’s 14-point lead had been completely erased, as Penn State scored 30 points in the final ten minutes of the period to tie the game at 34.
Again the opening of the half was kind to the NU offense. Turner and Kopp each turned in a quick-hitter three and Boo Buie got off the schneid with a floater to give Northwestern a 46-44 lead around the 15 minute mark.
Surprisingly, the ‘Cats kept hanging onto their lead behind more good three-point shooting, but Jones and Dread continued to answer for Penn State and keep the game close, as Northwestern lead 55-52 midway through the half before A.J. Turner nearly brought the house down on a dunk attempt over Harrar (although, he was unable to convert either of his free throw attempts off this miss).
A Buie and-1, followed by yet another corner three for Kopp resulted in a 61-54 lead for the ‘Cats, once again getting the crowd to rise up as the potential upset was growing more realistic. Despite a scoreless first half for the freshman point guard, Buie balled out in the second half and finished with 13 crucial points.
In an almost surreal turn of events, Northwestern slowly began to build their original lead back up. Two Spencer free throws, a Ryan Young and-one and yet another corner dagger by Kopp, and just like that, the ‘Cats were winning 69-56 with a little over five minutes remaining.
All season, this had been the moment where everything would start to fall apart for Northwestern, and ultimately end in yet another discouraging loss. But then, the collapse didn’t happen. The ‘Cats played great defense, didn’t commit turnovers and continued to keep their opposition out of reach.
There were momentary scares, as Penn State pieced together possessions with multiple offensive rebounds, Lamar Stevens knocked down a three and Young was whistled for a questionable foul on a three-point attempt by Seth Lundy, trimming the Wildcat lead to eight with under a minute to go.
The win was secured after Turner rebounded a miss by Dread and canned the two free throws, Malnati checked into a thunderous ovation from the audience and the students attempted to storm the court, only to be quickly escorted off.
With Northwestern’s win today, the Wildcats will officially play against Minnesota next Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. CST in the first round of the Big Ten tournament.