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Northwestern’s overtime win over Rutgers closer than desired but welcome nonetheless

The ‘Cats weren’t without their struggles Tuesday night, but after five straight home losses, victory was still sweet.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Love him or hate him, Chris Collins said at least one thing that all Northwestern fans can relate to during his postgame press conference after the ‘Cats downed Rutgers 79-78 in overtime Tuesday night.

“Obviously, would we have loved to [have protected] that lead and won going away, sure,” he said, referencing the 24-point advantage the Wildcats squandered in the second half before winning by the slimmest of margins. “I mean, I would’ve loved it for my blood pressure.”

Then came the part that some NU faithful will disagree with.

“But at the end of the day, maybe it’s even better that we had to win a close game. Maybe it’s even better that we faced that kind of game pressure and everybody had a little bit of late game nerves there, and you gotta find a way to dig it out. Maybe for this [team’s] development, it was better that we had to do that.”

It’s no question that the experience Collins’ team got winning in a close game was needed. NU entered the night 1-5 in contests that were either decided by five points or fewer or went to overtime, with the lone victory coming in the Wildcats’ shocking road upset of then-No. 10 Michigan State. That win happened to also have been Northwestern’s most recent, with the team recording losses in each of the four matchups that preceded Tuesday night’s bout. Prevailing over the Scarlet Knights was a must for the Wildcats, especially after they played what was one of their best halves of the season — if not their very best — to open things up.

But to many, the collapse that forced overtime is more relevant than the game’s final result. Following a Robbie Beran layup that his team up by 24 — their largest lead of the game — the ‘Cats, who had been shooting 62.5 percent from the field to that point, went cold, making only seven of the remaining 25 shots they attempted from the floor. All of NU’s six misses from the free throw line came with less than five minutes remaining in regulation or later. Both of these statistical observations are relevant, given that spurts of offensive futility and failed chances from the charity stripe have often been driving forces in many of the Wildcats’ close defeats this season.

“Give Rutgers credit,” said Collins, alluding to his team’s latter-game shooting struggles. “They’re a scrappy team. They're an old team. They’re fighting for things, too. They started scrambling the game with some traps, some presses, had a little bit of zone, then they were matching up man. It got us out of sorts a little bit, no question about it.”

At the end of the day, though, the ‘Cats were able to lock down a close win and pick up their first home conference win of the season. Whether spectators will remember the good or the bad more, Collins pointed to the fact that the result in the record book will count all the same.

“It doesn’t really matter, guys,” he said. “You win by one or you win by 30, it counts in this conference.”

And to Boo Buie, who led the team with 18 points and contributed late with a clutch overtime three, the journey that has led the team to this point made the ultimate outcome even more rewarding.

“It feels great to be able win a close game at the end,” he said. “We’ve been in a bunch of them all year, whether it be a two possession game, or we lose by two or three possessions. So we’ve just been telling ourselves to fix the errors, come out and try to win.”

Now, as the team reaches the home stretch of the season with a .500 record, Buie hopes to use Tuesday’s experience as a launch pad for future tight affairs.

“It feels good, obviously, that we won this close game when the view is that we can’t win those types of games,” he said. “Obviously just [trying to] continue to prove people wrong.”