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Northwestern’s fight is evident as it picks up second straight win

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The ‘Cats surprised one of the Big Ten’s hottest teams.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Minnesota Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Illinois — Northwestern has three winning streaks and just one losing streak this season. That winless stretch just happened to span 13 games.

When it seemed like the losses would never stop mounting, the Wildcats finally won at Minnesota last Thursday. Then came the follow-up act. Winning two straight in the Big Ten? Not easy for them. They won three in a row in December but hadn’t won consecutive conference games before then since January 2019.

But the 67-59 victory in Minneapolis rejuvenated NU (8-14, 5-13 Big Ten) on Wednesday night, as it overcame a poor shooting night and closed the game on a 6-0 run to surge past Maryland (15-11, 9-10) 60-55 to achieve its second straight win.

For however gloomy things looked during the 13-game slide, Northwestern rarely lost because of a lack of effort, and head coach Chris Collins was quick to credit his team’s fight even in defeat. His words weren’t hollow. The ‘Cats have played the toughest schedule of anybody in the country in the last 20 years, according to KenPom, and though their play has been far from perfect, they’ve been in plenty of games they just didn’t close out.

“There’s such as there’s such a small margin winning and losing in this league, but the emotions you feel from winning versus losing is probably the widest margin on Earth,” said Collins. “When you keep showing up and you’re not getting the results, you’re not getting the rewards, you can get beat down. But winning that game at Minnesota, I just think for all of us — coaches, everybody — you get that joy again of what it feels like to win, especially in this league, because of how good these teams are. I thought we carried that, into our preparation for this game.”

That preparation wasn’t evident early, as Maryland jumped out to a 7-0 lead and forced Collins to call timeout after just two minutes. The Terps led 11-2 before NU began to settle into the contest. Collins said his team’s starts have been troubling, referencing the 17-3 hole the ‘Cats faced in Minneapolis.

Northwestern used the three-ball to regain its footing early on, and without it would have been doomed. It made just 10 buckets in the first half, but eight of them were from beyond the arc. And the production didn’t come from NU’s most reliable marksman, Miller Kopp. The junior, who came into the game slumping but still 38% from three, went 0-for-8 from deep and didn’t score. Instead, Boo Buie, Chase Audige and Pete Nance collectively picked up the slack, combining to shoot 9-of-16 from downtown and score 41 points.

“I’ll tell Miller every time he shoots it, I think it’s going in every time,” said Nance. “I told him that tonight every time he missed a shot, ‘you keep shooting.’ He’s our shooter and some nights that’s going to happen. It was nice that we were able to pick him up, have his back, and we’re able to come up with the win.”

Defense owned the night, and Northwestern put on the clamps when it needed. Maryland turned the ball over four more times than it averages and relied on more of a paint presence, though it struggled to generate many chances at the foul line. The Terrapins attempt just seven free throws and made four of them while NU made 10 of 11.

What was most impressive was the way NU finished the game, reminiscent of its performances during the three-game win streak to open conference play in December. The Wildcats led for most of the first half and all the way until 4:50 left in the game when Maryland took a 51-50 lead. The Terps led 55-54 with 2:32 to go via a Darryl Morsell free throw but didn’t make a field goal in the game’s final 4:02. They missed their final seven attempts and did not grab any offensive boards during that span.

Collins elected for a two-big lineup and brought out the zone in the game’s final minutes, citing Maryland’s increasingly effective ability to break NU down off the dribble and draw fouls. The zone forced UMD into taking long threes as its final five shots, all of which missed.

“The last four minutes, I couldn’t have been prouder,” said Collins. “They took a two-point lead there was 3:48 to go, we just had such great positive, strong winning talking at huddle, that we’re going to get stops we’re going to win.”

There was nothing aesthetically pleasing about Northwestern’s victory over Maryland, but the tape will show a lot of grit. For the second straight game, the Wildcats out-executed their opponent down the stretch.

The victory and Sunday’s regular-season finale have Big Ten Tournament seeding implications, and it’s a reminder that the effort has been there; NU is up to 35th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency. It’s been ugly in Evanston, but as evidenced Wednesday night, the guys have never stopped trying.