Wednesday night’s double overtime loss might be the perfect example of how Northwestern’s men’s basketball team has consistently raised the hopes of Wildcat fans and subsequently crushed them, over and over again.
This one hurt especially bad, though. The opportunity for the ‘Cats to finally snap their losing streak was brushing at their fingertips — they had not one, but two overtime periods to make up for mistakes that plagued their first 40 minutes of play, but to no avail. Poor shooting by the guards, careless fouls and an inability to lock down key players marked Northwestern’s sixth single-digit loss of the season and served as an unfortunate reminder that until the ‘Cats can win close games, postseason hopes are far and few between.
Boo Buie and Chase Audige shot a combined 8-for-25 with seven missed layups between the two. The majority of Audige’s points came in overtime. He scored just four points in regulation, and didn’t really stack up numbers in any other stat categories to make up for it. Buie was a tad bit more productive in regulation thanks to two first half threes, but he only hit one shot within the arc on six attempts before the overtime whistle blew.
As if the ‘Cats could handle more poor shooting, Ty Berry was little help either. The sophomore scored two points the entire contest and went 0-for-5 from beyond the arc. He also didn’t contribute more than an assist in regulation before picking up one singular defensive rebound and one assist in extra time.
These are simplistic statistical evaluations of performance, but if Northwestern is to have postseason hopes, it cannot have three starters shooting below 33 percent, especially against one of the two teams that sits below them in the Big Ten standings — or, at least, one of the two teams that sat below them prior to Wednesday’s debacle. Postseason teams also don’t miss 19 of 33 layup attempts and find a way to lose after leading 10 separate times.
Barring a few arguably bad calls, Northwestern’s foul trouble also put it in a deep hole. The ‘Cats racked up 31 personal fouls last night, the most they’ve collected in a game all season and 10 more than the last time they played UMD. Three players — Robbie Beran, Ryan Greer and Audige — fouled out before the game’s conclusion, and Buie came close with four fouls of his own.
With few options to turn to and Pete Nance out for crucial minutes of the second overtime with an injury, these fouls, many of them careless, came back to bite the Wildcats. Berry was the only starter remaining with fouls to give when the clock began to wind down, leaving Ryan Young and freshman Julian Roper II to fill in during crunch time. When all was said and done, even they racked up three each.
It’s clear that Chris Collins isn’t afraid to utilize players off the bench, but in crunch time, one would hope players like Audige and Beran are simply available to play. They weren’t on Wednesday, and that absolutely hurt Northwestern’s chances of coming out with a win.
Lastly, if it’s obvious no Northwestern player is going to have an Fatts Russell or Eric Ayala-type night, the ‘Cats are, at the very least, going to have to find a way to stop them. Russell and Ayala combined for 49 of the Terrapins 94 points last night, and Hakim Hart dropped 18 of his own.
Ayala went 5-for-11 from beyond the arc, many of which came from uncontested shots, and the fouls he and Russell drew sent them to the line enough for 16 combined points from the charity stripe — two more than the entire Northwestern team pulled in from free-throws all night. Ayala, Hart and Xavier Green also dominated offensive rebounding, especially in the game’s final stretch, where UMD pulled in three offensive rebounds in a span of 30 seconds to keep the ‘Cats, down by five at the time, from countering with under a minute to go.
Those points off fouls and somewhat uncontested rebounds, especially in a game as close as this one was, could have been the difference-maker. If Audige, Buie or Beran committed one less foul each or literally anyone broke down UMD’s offensive momentum in the second overtime period, the ‘Cats would have won this game. But what’s the point of “what ifs” if the “what ifs” never happen?
On the tail end of four conference losses, Northwestern’s trajectory looks eerily similar to that of a similar time last season. It is key that the ‘Cats do not repeat their winless January from 2021, but one has to ask: where do they go from here?
“We’ve lost four in a row. We have 15 left, and there’s plenty of opportunities,” Collins said in the postgame press conference. “But, you can’t win 15 unless you win one. That’s got to be the focus.”