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Northwestern’s season ends on a familiar chord in ugly loss to Minnesota

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Despite an improvement in record, the ‘Cats squandered a late lead to make another early exit from the Big Ten Tournament.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament- Minnesota vs Northwestern Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana — It looked for a moment like Northwestern’s winning streak would reach four games. Riding three straight gritty victories, the Wildcats slugged their way from an early 16-2 deficit to lead shorthanded Minnesota 46-39 with 3:58 left in a game marred by poor shooting.

NU did not score again, and the Gophers, powered by star guard Marcus Carr’s seven points, closed the game on a 12-0 run to knock the Wildcats out of the Big Ten Tournament in the first round.

It’s hard to justify NU’s losing this game, and it put a damper on the late-season momentum the ‘Cats had generated. They played a Minnesota squad they’d beaten two weeks before that still remained without two key players in Liam Robbins and Gabe Kalscheur. The Gophers hadn’t won in eight games.

It simply was not NU’s night. It shot 31% from the field, 27% from three and a paltry 41% from the free-throw line. No Wildcat scored more than nine points, and it took Miller Kopp 18 shots to score that many.

“Some nights you have bad shooting nights, and unfortunately that happened to us tonight,” said junior forward Pete Nance. “We got really great looks. Today, not a lot of them were going in. We’ve just got to be able to live with that knowing that we practice those shots and that they just weren’t going in today.”

Even through their paltry shooting numbers, NU gave itself a chance to win. Out of a timeout, Boo Buie found Kopp open in the corner, but with 3:44 left the three wouldn’t go down, and the ‘Cats missed their next four to end the game.

“We would take [that shot] all day long,” said NU head coach Chris Collins. “It just was in and out and then they came down and Tre’ Williams hit a three with Boo right on him. Sometimes it’s make or miss with some of that.”

Northwestern’s offense going cold isn’t a new development. In 11 out of its last 12 games, it failed to score more than 70 points in regulation. Despite improving to 6-13 in the conference from 3-17 a year ago, the Wildcats still struggled with consistent offense. When the ‘Cats started the season 6-0, they boasted about how different guys stepped up each night. During the 13-game losing streak, there was no go-to option.

Collins talked several times both preseason and during the season about his team’s versatility and the volume of shooters on the roster. Instead of playing with pace and efficiency, though, the ‘Cats played more like volume shooters.

“We have to be better in terms of learning how to get to the free-throw line more,” said Collins. “I think we’re last in the conference in free-throw attempts. Whether it’s attacking the basket in transition or in the post, we’ve got to learn how to get easier baskets. I thought we were going to be a good shooting team. Our numbers kind of were up and down throughout the year.”

Northwestern pulled out wins when it didn’t shoot well against Minnesota in February and Maryland, but those were exceptions to the rule. The Wildcats played the second-toughest schedule in the country behind Penn State, which led Collins to say his team was potentially three wins away from being an NCAA Tournament team. Making the jump from three to six wins against difficult opponents, during a pandemic, is improvement. But if six conference wins is progress, and the program hasn’t won more than six Big Ten games since 2017-18, that’s a disappointment.

Collins hasn’t won a Big Ten Tournament game since 2017.

“The thing I’m most disappointed about is that we weren’t able to sustain from when those guys went to the Tournament [in 2017] and we put ourselves in a position where we had to have a reset,” he said. “But that happens at a lot of places and you know, we said we’re going to redo it the right way. We’re going get some guys in here who believe. Our talented players are going to get better and that’s what they’re doing.”

It seems the sights have been set on next year as the year to make The Jump. Everyone will be back (barring transfers) and a year older, with 20 more Big Ten games under their belts. Sound familiar?

“I think we will be much better for that having gone through that this year,” Collins said of Northwestern’s tough schedule.

Sound familiar?

The Wildcats rewarded themselves for their hard work during this pandemic season by winning three straight to end the regular season. They may have even kept their coach’s seat from getting hotter. But the fact remains, and their season-ending loss encapsulated it, that despite improvement, there are no answers in sight for Northwestern. Next year is a prove it or move it year for Collins.