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Defense yet again the culprit in Northwestern’s latest loss

Little has gone right for the Wildcats during their current losing streak, but one area stands out from the others.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

For a while Saturday night, it looked like Northwestern might end its six-game losing streak. The Wildcats traded barbs with Penn State as an entertaining contest in University Park came down to the wire, with six lead changes in the final half of play. Neither team, with less than 11:50 left, led by more than four until Jamari Wheeler nailed a three to put PSU up by six with 70 seconds to go.

Wheeler’s triple capped a 10-0 run for the Nittany Lions that NU couldn’t surmount. Its offense went cold for nearly four minutes at a most opportune time. By the time Pete Nance and Miller Kopp put together a mini-rally to bring the ‘Cats within one and eventually give them a shot at a game-tying possession at the buzzer, it was not enough. The damage had been done, sending NU (6-8, 3-7 Big Ten) to its seventh straight loss after starting 3-0 in conference.

While it’d be easy to pass blame onto the offense for scoring just five points in the final four-and-a-half minutes, it’s the Wildcats defense that failed them yet again.

“When it gets down to that time in the game, you got to really buckle down,” said head coach Chris Collins. “Penn State did a really good job of getting loose balls. I thought our initial defense at times was very good. Whether it was an offensive rebound, whether it was kind of a loose ball in the lane, I thought they beat us to those consistently tonight, give them credit for that. And a number of those times led to scores.”

Indeed, Penn State out-rebounded Northwestern 38-25 overall and 13-5 on the offensive glass, despite the Nittany Lions playing their fourth game in seven days. It wasn’t particularly efficient with those offensive rebounds, scoring a modest 11 second-chance points to NU’s six. But in generating enough second-chance opportunities, every point mattered in the three-point victory.

The loss continues a disturbing trend for Northwestern, which has allowed more than 80 points in six of its last seven games and an average of 82.7 points per game during this losing streak. The Nittany Lions’ 43-point second half marks the fifth second half in NU’s past seven in which it has given up north of 40 points.

“78 points should be good enough to win in this conference,” said Collins. “You look at our percentages, we shot the ball well, we were pretty efficient, we probably turned it over a little bit too much, but we gave up at 81 again.”

Collins said that small miscues like losing a loose ball, miscommunications on defensive assignments and regrouping after offensive possessions add up over time.

“Now all of a sudden, you give up 10-to-12 of those kind of points. Instead of giving up 70 points, you give up 80 points.”

In a change of pace from the rest of its losing streak, in which NU has lost by double digits each of the last six times, the Wildcats’ offense kept them in it until the end. Three players scored 17 points or more, with junior forward Miller Kopp’s 14-point second half leading the charge.

A trio of Nittany Lions matched that production. Izaiah Brockington led all scorers with 21 points; Seth Lundy and Myreon Jones combined for 51 points and to shoot 7-for-16 from three. PSU connected on nine of its 20 attempts from deep, and the ‘Cats have now allowed opponents to shoot 40% or better from beyond the arc in all but one game during their current slide.

The Wildcats have a week to figure things out, and the break comes at the right time. It shouldn’t be that difficult to locate the point of emphasis for Collins and his staff all week before Rutgers visits Evanston on Sunday. Fortunately for Northwestern, the Scarlet Knights rank last in the conference, having made just 29% of their three-point attempts.

If NU wants to give itself any chance at winning in the latter half of its Big Ten schedule, the message is simple.

“You have to get stops.”