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Despite new offensive efforts, Northwestern still falls apart late against Michigan

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How does it keep getting worse?

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

If you were tuned in to the first half of Northwestern’s loss against Michigan, you may have noticed something different: the offense appeared to be flowing through the post far more than previous games.

Whether this was intentional on behalf of Chris Collins and Co. is unknown (it doesn’t appear that there was any post-game press conference last night where someone could have asked), but the stats seem to back it up. By the end of the game, Pete Nance and Ryan Young had combined for 15 shot attempts while also attempting 21 of the Wildcats’ 26 free throws. Meanwhile, Boo Buie and Chase Audige — two players known for erratic shot selection at times — took just 14 combined shots, their fewest in a conference game this year.

To add on to that, yesterday’s loss may have been one of Buie’s most efficient games of the season. He finished 5-for-8 from the floor and 2-for-4 from beyond the arc while adding three assists and only turning the ball over once. In fact, both Robbie Beran and Ryan Greer also had some of their best performances this year. Both Beran and Greer finished 2-for-2 from three, with Greer’s triples coming at a crucial point in the game. Beran fouled out before all was said and done, but he finished 4-for-5 from the floor and added three rebounds and one block.

Yet despite all of this efficiency, at the end of the day, we still got the same old Northwestern.

It’s difficult to comprehend how the Wildcats seem to keep inventing new ways to lose games this season. At the 17:10 mark of the second half, Eli Brooks sunk a three for the Wolverines to put them up by 11, and all signs pointed to Michigan running away with it. Somehow, though, the ‘Cats managed to claw their way back into things, as Greer hit one of his two threes with 10:06 to play to tie the game at 51.

All props should be given for the Wildcats getting back into it, as they could have easily folded. They even managed to get back into the lead, eventually extending the score to 62-55 on a Beran layup with just over five minutes to go. Had they held their lead, that run would have what you’re reading about right now. The team’s grittiness to get back into it would’ve been the main story, a huge positive in the midst of a brutal midseason stretch.

Yet here we are again, playing witness to another close Northwestern defeat. At this point, it has to be déjà vu. Somewhere, Bill Murray is beginning to get into some dangerous activities. He thinks he’s back in Groundhog Day.

Of course, the loss wasn’t the exact same as all of those that have come before. There were similarities, like missed free throws killing the ‘Cats, but a loss like the one to Michigan is something that NU hasn’t accomplished in over two years. The last game where Northwestern trailed by 10, came back to hold a multiple possession lead only to lose again came at Indiana on Jan. 8, 2020. In that game, the Wildcats trailed 27-17 late in the first half, then led 50-40 with 11:59 to play and lost 66-62.

Even that game mentioned above doesn’t quite mirror how Northwestern lost yesterday considering when and how the ‘Cats fell behind in each game. Regardless, the game flow charts are interesting — and simultaneously horrific — to look at.

In previous years, Collins has attributed close losses like these ones to inexperience. In the past two seasons, his teams had limited veteran presence aside from a grad transfer or two. Now, the story is different. Nance is a senior and a legitimate NBA prospect. Buie, Audige, Young and Beran are all juniors. The only non-upperclassman starter has been either Ty Berry or Ju Roper, both of whom have shown tremendous flashes of potential. Inexperience can’t be the reasoning for these close losses anymore.

As the ‘Cats continue through the gauntlet that is their 2022 schedule, they’ll take on ranked rival Illinois at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday. The game is sold out, according to a recent email from NU Athletics. Like the many games that have come before it, is a must win for Northwestern. It’s difficult to envision a path to any postseason tournament if the Wildcats don’t start winning fast, but at this point, maybe it’s best to hope they don’t conjure up a new way to lose.