EVANSTON, Illinois — At some point, the excuses have to stop.
Heading into the halftime intermission Thursday night against No. 12 Illinois, Northwestern was riding a comfortable 15-point lead. The Wildcats shot an impressive 52% from the field and scored 43 points in the first 20 minutes. At that point, they had a 90.3% chance of victory and appeared to have fixed their persisting issues against talented Big Ten opponents like Iowa and Michigan. They looked good.
However, the matchup took a stark turn for the worse, as Illinois outscored Northwestern 53-13 in the second half and took an 81-56 win back to Champaign. In just 20 minutes, U of I issued a massive 40-point swing that not only erased NU’s sizable halftime lead but extended a hefty margin of victory of its own.
“When we lost the lead, they smelled the blood in the water and really attacked like a great team does,” said head coach Chris Collins. “Once we lost the lead, we lost our poise.”
Northwestern became the first Division I team in the last 25 years to blow a 15-point halftime lead and lose by 20 or more. It also became the first team since 2003 to be outscored by a major conference opponent in a single half by 40 points or more.
“They came out in the second half and just wanted it more than us,” said sophomore forward Robbie Beran. “It’s difficult to give one reason...They went on a little run and from there, things can go one of two ways: you can band together or splinter.”
The Wildcats did not band together in the second half and staged their worst collapse of the season. In a half where they just needed to only hold serve, nothing went right, as their flawless first-half performance was overshadowed by terrible showings on both sides of the ball. NU shot a dismal 8.3% from the field, making just two of its 24 field goal attempts. Beran was the only Wildcat to hit a shot in the period, and Northwestern turned the ball over nine times despite giving it away only four times in the first half.
Minutes into the second half, it became clear that Northwestern had gone cold offensively and would have to keep up its strong defensive start to stay in the game. However, Illinois’ offensive weapons soon took over to put the game out of reach. The Illini shot 59% from the floor in the second half, including 57% from three. Star players Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu, who combined for just nine first-half points, totaled 24 in the second frame. Northwestern was getting beat inside and from three, proving that the defensive issues from its previous two matchups are far from resolved.
“This league has still remained to have the dominant big man,” Collins said. “The thing that makes it very challenging is the supporting cast around those guys — the guys that Luka [Garza] plays with at Iowa, the guys that Kofi [Cockburn] plays with here tonight — it makes it very challenging because if you put too much attention there on those guys, then you get hurt by the rest of the team.”
Three games in a row, Northwestern has successfully limited one part of an opponent’s game just to be sorely beaten by another. Whether it’s strong post play or dominant three-point shooting, the Wildcats have picked their own poison and struggled to play a complete game as a result.
NU knew it had a challenging schedule ahead and knew in order to compete it would have to upset ranked teams, which it began this season by doing. In the midst of a three-game losing streak, the Wildcats have raised the question of whether they are a team capable of competing in this impressive conference or whether they just had one good week early in the season.
At some point, the excuses have to stop. This is a talented team. NU is capable of hanging with the Big Ten’s best, as we saw against Iowa and in the first half of Thursday’s game. Last year, fans accepted the excuses that they were young or hadn’t yet found a rhythm or hadn’t yet learned how to win. Now, the only excuse is they have to play better.
The Big Ten is incredibly talented this season, but in order for NU to retain any shot of making the NCAA Tournament and remain a middle-of-the-pack team, it has to recognize its problems, own its mistakes and band together to climb out of this hole into which it has fallen. If it can’t, that Cinderella start will soon be forgotten and this season risks replicating last season’s disappointment.
“It’s a long season,” Beran said. “But if you have one bad game, it can turn into two and it can turn into three and then you’re sitting in late January wondering, ‘where did this go wrong?’”