EVANSTON, Illinois — Change was in the air against the Indiana Hoosiers, but that change still wasn’t enough to avoid yet another heartbreaking defeat as Northwestern (6-11, 3-10 Big Ten) fell to IU (11-8, 6-6) 79-76 in double overtime.
The changes started early. Before Wednesday night’s matchup, NU announced a starting five of Chase Audige, Anthony Gaines, Miller Kopp, Pete Nance and Ryan Young. It wasn’t the first time that the ‘Cats had rolled out those five, as they had done it against Purdue just four days prior.
The less-used lineup was designed to give the ‘Cats a bit more height and physicality on both ends of the floor and got them off to a quick start against Indiana. They led 12-3 with 12:21 to go in a slog of a first half.
Yet even with this change, the NU made too many mistakes and blew leads in both regulation and overtime in what might go down as its worst loss of the season.
“It was just more about shaking it up,” head coach Chris Collins said postgame about the starting five. “We were trying to get a bit of a different look, getting more bigger and more physical, and we got off to a really good start. Those guys did a really good job of setting the tone for the game.”
That might be what frustrates fans so much about this loss. The starting five did set a great tone early on. The ‘Cats held the Hoosiers to 20 points in the first half on 24% shooting. Northwestern outscored IU 8-0 on points off turnovers. The Wildcats shot better than Indiana throughout the game. In fact, most stats point toward a Northwestern victory.
That is, until, you look at the overall flow of the game. For one, the Wildcats fouled incessantly, gifting Indiana with 38 free throw attempts, of which 27 it made. Northwestern also allowed Indiana to go on a 7-0 run in the final two minutes of regulation to force overtime and then a 6-0 run in the final minute of overtime to force double overtime.
The ‘Cats just couldn’t close it out. Those are words the Northwestern fanbase has become accustomed to hearing. Watching this team has become less about watching young players develop into stars and the occasional “upset” victory. Instead, it’s about watching how it loses. It shouldn’t be that way.
Just when you think the ‘Cats are clawing at the bottom of the barrel, they pull out a new way to lose. A double-overtime loss to Indiana, a loss to Pitt in which they led for all but about five seconds, a double-digit halftime lead over Illinois that turned into a 25-point win for the Illini. You name it, NU has suffered through it.
Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh. Despite the outcome, there were a few bright spots, such as Chase Audige, who led Northwestern with 19 points, four assists, four steals and two blocks.
“I think you’re seeing his growth,” Collins said on Audige. “I’d much rather have someone you need to calm down than someone you need to light a fire under. He’s got great energy, he’s got a great motor and he’s still learning how to pick and choose his times to attack.”
Picking and choosing times to attack is not something that only Audige is still learning to do. That’s a team-wide problem. Shot selection issues are not limited to one player, nor are forced passes. Mistakes plague the ‘Cats in just about every facet of their game at times, and when those get cleaned up, they’re in much better position to win basketball games.
“We played pretty well today,” forward Pete Nance said. “We were a couple mistakes away from turning the corner. There were a couple key plays, key moments that hurt us and they made the plays and we didn’t.”
When that happens, no matter the adjustments they make to open a game, no matter the runs they go on or the turnovers they force, they’re going to find new, and worse, ways to lose.