EVANSTON, Illinois — There were multiple moments on Sunday when it looked like Northwestern handed the game right to Nebraska. Then sophomore center Ryan Young buried the Cornhuskers on a putback layup with just 2.7 seconds left.
For the first time in a long time, it feels as if momentum might truly be back with the Wildcats.
The 79-78 win over Nebraska wasn’t perfect. It was far from it. Despite 15 UNL turnovers, the ‘Cats won by just a single point after holding a double-digit lead with just over 10 minutes left. Northwestern couldn’t contain Kobe Webster, who scored 23 points and shot 7-of-12 from beyond the three-point line. NU even trailed by four with two minutes to go.
Yet NU found a way to win, much like it did in their two previous games against Minnesota and Maryland. On a three-game winning streak fairly similar to the one with which they opened conference play, the Wildcats ride a wave of wins into Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament.
That’s not something that happens often. The last time Northwestern won its final three regular season games was in 2015-16, when it fell to Michigan in overtime in its first Big Ten tournament game. There are vast differences between the 2015-16 Wildcats and this year’s team, but one thing is clear: after so much losing, winning can clear the mind like little else.
“To come out here and have wins like today, to see those guys smile and have some joy and celebrate afterwards, that’s what it’s all about,” said Northwestern head coach Chris Collins. “We’re just excited now to head to Indy. Everybody starts fresh, get a couple days here to prepare and get ready for Wednesday.”
Teams starting fresh is key. In its first round matchup on Wednesday evening, Northwestern will take on Minnesota, a team the Wildcats beat in Minneapolis just two weeks ago. If they’re able to defeat the Golden Gophers, Northwestern would then face fifth-seeded Ohio State, with which it split the season series.
As big and bad as this Big Ten has been, there are openings. Most notably, Minnesota has lost seven straight games and the Buckeyes, who had won 10 of 11 games, have lost four straight.
Perhaps it’s jumping the gun. Northwestern did manage to lose 13 straight games. The Wildcats may be the definition of streaky.
When you’re winning, though, you’ve got all the momentum. Few other teams in the Big Ten are on win streaks right now, as only four seeds (three of which are in the top four in this year’s Big Ten Tournament) enter the postseason having won multiple games in a row.
“[Coach] Collins has been saying after every game that every win is a huge win in this league, everybody knows it,” said Young. “Wins are hard to come across in the best league in the country, and when you get three straight, you gotta build off of it. I think we’re one of the hotter teams in the league right now, and we’re excited to see what we can do in Indianapolis.”
At the end of the game against the Huskers, a defense that had failed for most of the second half stood up. It forced a shot clock violation with 11 seconds to go to set up the game-winning possession. When the Wildcats were down four and the game threatened to get away from them, they hit shots. Six players scored in double figures. That isn’t something that’s happened very often this season.
During their 13-game losing streak, they let some games slip away while in others they couldn’t get back in the fight. They faced blowouts here and there, but one win has turned into three in a row. Have two of the three wins come against teams that have struggled mightily this year? Yes. Have the ‘Cats themselves struggled mightily at times? Yes.
But as they enter the Big Ten tournament, momentum is key. The odds of Northwestern making a serious run into the weekend remain low, but the ‘Cats are hot and they’ve found ways to win. They might just be able to make a little noise in Indianapolis.