EVANSTON, Ill.— How a 24-point lead turned into an overtime battle, no one will ever know. But at the end of a day, a win is a win.
To kick off the final stretch of the regular season, Northwestern (10-10, 3-8 B1G) beat Rutgers (12-9, 6-5 B1G) 79-78 in trademark Cardiac ‘Cats fashion. The victory marks Chris Collins’ seventh win over the Scarlet Knights and the ‘Cats first win at home since December 20th.
Boo Buie lead Northwestern with 18 points along with four assists and four rebounds. Chase Audige followed suit with 15 of his own coupled with six boards. For Rutgers, it was all Paul Mulcahy, as the junior recorded 31 points and four steals.
The ‘Cats opened up the scoring right off the bat after winning the tip thanks to a quick three from Pete Nance. Rutgers was quick to equalize, though, hitting an open three of their own a few possessions later. Both teams continued to trade points, including a Audige poster dunk that put Northwestern up by three at the first media timeout.
New Jersey native Ryan Young checked in after the break and earned his first points on a well-timed pass from Audige in the paint. However, the Scarlet Knights slowly crept closer and managed to tie the score at 10 shortly after.
The next few Northwestern possessions saw the ‘Cats pull back ahead. Elyjah Williams earned a well-fought layup, followed by a Nance jumper and a three from Ryan Greer. Omoruyi did his best to try and bring RU level with a layup of his own, but Chris Collins’ offense was firing from all cylinders. A timeout called by Rutgers’ head coach Steve Pikiell did little to slow the ‘Cats, who lead 23-14 with just under eight minutes to go in the half.
Northwestern did nothing but continue to pull ahead as play re-commenced. Audige and freshman Julian Roper II extended the lead to 13 while allowing few opportunities for Rutgers to catch up on the defensive end. Robbie Beran then joined the party with a pull-up three and a two points in the paint off a pinpoint pass from Nance.
The first half ended with Northwestern shooting an impressive 59 percent for a 43-25 lead. Eight different ‘Cats managed to contribute to the scoreline and they collectively forced 10 turnovers out of the Scarlet Knights.
At first, Northwestern carried its initial momentum right into the second frame. Beran and Audige extended the ‘Cats lead to 24 within the first few minutes as Rutgers’ Omoruyi, leading the team with 14 points at the time, left the court with an apparent injury.
The ‘Cats offensive firepower slowed as the half continued, though. Only a Buie three kept Northwestern from sustaining a four minute drought between minutes 16 and 12, giving the Scarlet Knights ample opportunities to climb back into the game. Omoruyi returned to play and RU sliced the deficit down to 16.
Momentum briefly shifted back to the ‘Cats after a Nance and-one in the paint just before the under-eleven break. Nonetheless, Rutgers followed with five points of its own to bring the scoreline even closer to 58-46.
Buie earned his third foul and sent RU into the bonus with just over nine minutes to go. Then, a jumper from the Dean Reiber brought the Scarlet Knights within 10 amidst a three minute Northwestern scoring drought, prompting a Chris Collins’ timeout.
The break did little to stop Rutgers’ momentum—almost immediately after the whistle, Mulcahy hit another jumper to bring RU into single-digit striking range. However, Young would not let them get any closer, and he quickly answered with six straight points to re-extend the lead to 11.
Young’s spurt didn’t last long. The Scarlet Knights’ pulled within six points with just under four minutes to go. To make matters worse, an Audige foul beyond the arc sent Mulcahy to the stripe for three successful free-throws. Mulcahy then hit another free-throw off a fast-break foul and pulled up from beyond the arc to bring the Scarlet Knights within one.
The ‘Cats finally managed to move the ball to the other end where Greer answered with a crucial layup. Greer then fouled Mulcahy yet again, and he hit another free-throw to bring the score to 70-68. Northwestern failed to score on their next possession on a shot-clock violation, leaving Rutgers with just over six seconds to level the score.
And they did. On a dunk. For the second time in conference play, the ‘Cats headed to overtime after a half-court prayer from Buie at the buzzer missed off the rim.
Mulcahy opened scoring with a jumper in the paint, but Audige answered quickly from beyond the arc to give the ‘Cats the lead. Buie was then fouled and sent to the charity stripe, where he hit one-of-two.
Buie made up for the missed free-throw with a pick-and-roll three off of a Young screen on the next NU possession. Mulcahy, doing everything on his own, answered right away with a jumper. A missed Audige three led to yet another successful Rutgers possession thanks to Omoruyi, who brought the Scarlet Knights within one.
A crucial turnover on Rutgers’ next possession gave Northwestern the ball with under 30 seconds to go. With such little time left on the clock, the Scarlet Knights began to foul and Buie was sent to the line yet again, this time making both free-throws. Despite a last ditch effort by Mulcahy to bring Rutgers within one, the ‘Cats managed to pull out a hard fought, yet unnecessarily close win.
Northwestern earns itself a much-needed break this week before hitting the road to face Nebraska on Saturday at 12 p.m. CST.