EVANSTON, Illinois — January has been a long month for Northwestern men’s basketball.
After a week-long break following the loss to Penn State, the Wildcats (6-9, 3-8 B1G) returned home with the hope of ending their seven-game skid. Things looked grim at the outset of the contest, but the ‘Cats clawed their way back into the game in both halves. However, Ron Harper Jr. and Rutgers (10-6, 6-6 B1G) proved too much for NU to handle, as the team came up short yet again, 64-56.
Miller Kopp led the way for the Wildcats with 15 points, followed closely behind by Ryan Young’s 14 points off the bench and Chase Audige’s 14 points and 5 steals.
The Scarlet Knights announced their arrival in Evanston with a Myles Johnson opening bucket and a Geo Baker three-pointer. The ‘Cats started cold from the field, but after nearly two scoreless minutes, a Boo Buie floater put Northwestern on the board.
Out of the first media timeout, Johnson and the physical Rutgers squad extended the lead to 10 behind some aggressive defense and accurate shooting, draining eight of their first 12 attempts from the field.
Northwestern was plagued by turnovers, committing 10 in the opening half and 20 total for the game, and could not buy a bucket in the game’s early goings. It wasn’t until after back-to-back missed three-pointers from Boo Buie and Kopp, as well as a technical foul on Audige, that the Wildcats would end their four-minute scoring drought with a Young bucket, giving NU only four points after six minutes of play.
The Scarlet Knights’ defense continued to smother Northwestern, stretching the lead to 20 points with 8:50 left in the first half, with Chris Collins’ squad only garnering 11 points in the game’s first 11 minutes. It seemed as though the action was trending toward a repeat of Rutgers’ dominant win over MSU this past Thursday, only for Northwestern to shockingly work their way back into the game. Audige sparked a 10-0 Northwestern run with a myriad of steals and deflections that brought Northwestern within 10 points of Rutgers.
The ‘Cats headed into the locker room trailing 34-29 on the heels of an 18-3 offensive push, during which Rutgers went 0-for-7 from the field in the final nine minutes.
Baker and Johnson combined for six quick points in the first 2:30 of the second half, as Rutgers stymied the momentum Northwestern had gained heading into the break. Despite having to send his best rim protector in Johnson to the bench with foul trouble, Steve Pikiell’s squad opened their lead back up in the second period, taking a 46-35 advantage into the under-12 media timeout.
Both teams slumped for long stretches of the second half, highlighted by five scoreless minutes from the ‘Cats, whose drought was finally broken when Kopp capitalized on a three-point play.
While Rutgers extended its lead to 15, NU struggled to find open looks, and the few it did find it struggled to convert. As a whole the team produced a 2-for-10 stretch from around the 10 to four-minute marks, generating their points almost exclusively from the free throw line.
Somehow, someway, through missed free throws on Rutgers’ end and back-to-back scores in the paint from Young and Nance, the ‘Cats found themselves with a chance to win in the final portions of the game, facing a mere 55-50 deficit with under three minutes left in the contest.
However, in spite of the team’s impressive surge to claw back into the game, immensely difficult step-back jumpers from both Jacob Young and Harper Jr. served effectively as daggers to the Wildcats’ hearts. With three off the dribble turnovers from NU down the stretch, that was all it took for Rutgers to put the game out of reach.
Young led the Scarlet Knights with 19 points, while Baker and Harper Jr. added 12 and 13 respectively.
Northwestern returns to the court against Purdue (12-6, 7-4 B1G) this Saturday at Mackey Arena.