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Northwestern learns it doesn’t have to be perfect to win in the Big Ten

It wasn’t pretty, but the Wildcats finally got a win in 2021.

The war is over. The light at the end of the tunnel has finally been reached.

No, we haven’t been vaccinated. But on Thursday night, Northwestern men’s basketball finally developed immunity to losing.

When Northwestern left Williams Arena late Thursday night, it walked away with one thing that had been missing for 61 straight days: a win. The Wildcats defeated Minnesota 67-59 to earn their first victory since December 26 and snap a 13-game losing streak that felt never-ending.

Northwestern’s performance was far from perfect, but if it learned anything from the matchup, it’s that you don’t have to do it all to win, even in the best conference in America.

NU was quickly on track to drop its 14th straight in a similar manner. The Wildcats scored just three points in the first eight minutes of play and turned the ball over eight times in that span. Minnesota cruised to a 17-3 lead, which seemed even larger because of NU’s lack of energy.

“I thought their pressure was bothering us,” said head coach Chris Collins. “It wasn’t looking so good. We had a really good huddle. I’ve actually got to give Ryan Greer credit. The guy only played a couple of minutes in the game. But he really stepped up and lit into our guys when we were down that we weren’t fighting, we weren’t getting stops, we weren’t defending the way we needed to. I thought it really jumped started us.”

After the Greer-led huddle, the tides turned, and Northwestern assembled 16-2 run that tied the game at 19 with 5:13 remaining in the half. Going into the half down just 31-25 wasn’t bad since the Wildcats gave it away 12 times in the first half — five of which were at the hands of Chase Audige — despite only averaging 11.4 turnovers per game.

In the second half, though, Northwestern finally figured out how to make a positive shift in the final 20 minutes rather than falling apart like it has countless times this season.

Boo Buie and Miller Kopp both finished in double figures in the second frame. Buie led all scorers with a standout 25 points, and after a bit of a rough stretch, Kopp found his confidence again and contributed 15 of his own. No other Wildcat scored more than six points.

With two minutes remaining, NU led by just four — an all-too-familiar situation for this team that rarely ends in its favor. However, Northwestern outscored Minnesota 12-8 in the final two minutes of the game and shot 9-for-10 from the free throw line in crunch time, adding to its impressive 22-for-27 total from the charity stripe.

“I thought when we got the lead, we continued to execute well down the stretch,” Collins said. “Boo had a big three in front of our bench. Chase Audige had a monster tip-in. We made our free throws. We turned it over throughout the whole game, but in the last two minutes, we didn’t turn it over when they were pressing and trapping. I thought we kept our poise.”

Collins hit the nail on the head. Northwestern has failed to keep its poise down the stretch in many close games. Or, it just faded in comeback attempts. But in this game, the Wildcats set themselves up to win, and when the opportunity presented itself, they finally capitalized.

The Wildcats lucked out with two of the Gophers’ top players sidelined in Liam Robbins and Gabe Kalscheur, but still had to account for Marcus Carr, who ranks fourth in the conference in scoring. Given the circumstances and how they’ve struggled against other top scorers in the Big Ten, they limited him well and forced him to become a passer.

“We wanted to test some of those other guys, and fortunately, they weren’t able to make a lot of those shots,” said Collins. “We made Carr take 17 shots to get 21 points, so if you do that with a great player, that’s a pretty good defensive performance.”

Even with a horrific start and 19 turnovers, the Wildcats did just enough right to earn a win. Their late-game play, free throws and defense elevated them to a level that they haven’t been able to reach in two months.

Entering the matchup, Minnesota had lost only two home games all season and was labeled one of the first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament. The Gophers were fighting for their postseason lives, and the ‘Cats dealt them a massive blow.

It’s just one win for Northwestern, but Collins’ bunch proved its fight despite all the adversity it has faced, playing the toughest schedule in NCAA history since KenPom was created in 2001-02. Even if it wasn’t perfect and took 14 tries to get its most recent victory, NU still managed to defy the odds and pull out a victory.

“You walk into the locker room, and you see the celebration, you see smiles,” said Collins. “These guys are putting a lot into this thing. You don’t see the way our guys have continued to battle through struggles. I have so much admiration and am just really proud of them. And they deserved it tonight.”