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Familiar journey leads to familiar defeat for Northwestern as the ‘Cats enter Big Ten play

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The rust induced by several COVID-related cancelations was especially evident in the second half, when NU blew a seven-point halftime lead.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: On Sunday, Northwestern led at halftime against a favored opponent and wound up losing.

Sure, it’s an overly simplistic way of breaking down the Wildcats’ 73-67 defeat at the hands of No. 10 Michigan State, but at its core, the game still had a storyline that NU fans are all too familiar with. Despite leading for 22 minutes and 23 seconds of the contest with their ranked foe, the ‘Cats, plagued by poor performances from their top scorers, a barrage of fouls and struggles at the free throw line, couldn’t hang on to what could’ve been a defining win that put wind behind the sails of their campaign to get back to March Madness for the second time in program history.

“We had our chances,” said Chris Collins, now in his ninth year at the helm for NU. “If you would’ve said to me after the game that [Pete] Nance, [Boo] Buie and [Chase] Audige were gonna be 10-for-40 and we were gonna have the ball down by two with a minute to go with a wide open three to take the lead, I don’t know that I would’ve said that would be true.”

The shot in question, which Audige missed off the front left of the rim with 1:16 left to play, was somewhat emblematic of the second half for the Wildcats, a 20-minute period during which they were outscored by a margin of 13.

Through tough perimeter defense, the Spartans were able to eliminate much of NU’s dribble-drive-based methods of moving the ball inside, as was the case on the critical play referenced by Collins. Running the point, Buie tried to push inside, but was held out by MSU’s Max Christie. Some off-ball movement allowed Audige to get an open chance from deep while centered up with the hoop, but given his struggles — the miss was the last of seven three point attempts for the junior transfer from William and Mary, only one of which fell — it still felt forced even if it was, in reality, NU’s best opportunity to score on the crucial possession.

Some 25 seconds later, Michigan State’s Gabe Brown squareup in front of his team’s bench and converted on an opportunity of his own from behind the line, putting a dagger in any hopes of a late resurgence for the hosts.

“You can analyze a lot of things,” said Collins. “We missed that open one, they make one, and sometimes that’s the difference in the game.”

For the head coach, though, it wasn’t NU’s late execution that cost them a marquee victory.

“I thought it got away from us, really, in the middle part of the second half,” said Collins.

Later, his players echoed that sentiment.

“It doesn’t have to do with the execution at the end of the game, at least tonight,” said Nance. “I think that throughout the game, we made some critical mistakes that ended up costing us towards the end.”

It’s hard to know which mistakes Nance was referring to in particular, but the Wildcats’ shooting woes, both from the field and at the charity stripe, weren’t helpful in their efforts to knock off perennially-contending Sparty for a second straight time after they upset Tom Izzo’s team 79-65 at Welsh-Ryan Arena last season to kick off their conference slate. The team went a combined 8-for-27 from the field in the second half, including 1-for-10 shooting from beyond the arc, while converting on only 17-of-27 from the line in the game’s latter 20 minutes.

For Collins, there was more contributing to NU’s shooting troubles than usual.

“I think neither team has really played a lot during this stretch and have had some guys out,” he said, alluding to the fact that the Wildcats played only three games in December on account of cancelations of the team’s contests against DePaul and Prairie View A&M due to COVID-19 protocols. The Spartans, conversely, played six games — with two Big Ten bouts among them — in the final month of 2021 without suffering a cancelation, but had two starters test positive for the virus and miss the team’s most recent clash with High Point before returning to the floor Sunday.

“I think some of the shooting [issues] kinda manifests with that, some of the free throw shooting, some of the three point shooting,” he added.

A lack of recent game experience wasn’t the only COVID-induced challenge the Wildcats faced on Sunday. The ‘Cats’ first contest of the new year was also their first of three home games without student support, as the university announced that students will not be allowed to access sporting events with their Wildcards during the two-week period of remote instruction it has instituted to begin the winter quarter in the wake of the Omicron Variant’s rise.

Without students in them, the sections behind each basket typically reserved for the Wildside were, like much of the arena, invaded by spectators wearing green, taking away any semblance of home-court advantage the ‘Cats may have otherwise felt. Collins acknowledged the impact of the students’ absence postgame.

“It hurts us,” he said. “But it can’t be an excuse. I really believe, under normal circumstances, the way we’ve played with Michigan State in here, I think the student section would’ve been rocking today. When you’re trying to get some energy in the second half of a game, I think the home crowd can bring you some life.”

Nance, on the other hand, sees the students’ return later in the month as a prospective boon to the team’s play as the season reaches its home stretch.

“When you get winded down the stretch, I think that’s another extra boost of motivation, when everybody’s going crazy,” he said. “So I’m just excited for when they’re able to return.”

Perhaps that “extra boost” is what the Wildcats will need to push through and accomplish the goal of reaching the NCAA Tournament, one that has seemed on the horizon for years. For now, though, Sunday’s contest was a familiar journey to a destination the Wildcats have come to know all too well: close defeat.