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Down 14 at half with the season on the line, Northwestern finally got its moment

The team whose close game screw-ups have always made them the butt of jokes finally came through at the right time.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Nebraska vs Northwestern Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Unless Northwestern miraculously wins four more games in the next four days, last night’s result ultimately doesn’t matter. There was a clearly stated goal for this team entering the 2021-22 season — change the narrative, build on all the losses of season’s past and make the NCAA Tournament.

They instead lost 13 conference games and inspired ‘Cats’ fans to tweet passive aggressive threats at Jon Rothstein for getting their hopes up (you better not chicken out on that bet Jon, I demand a drink at Lux by the end of April at the latest).

And yes, no one is building Chris Collins a monument for outlasting a 10-22 Nebraska team whose performance prior to the season’s end could best be described as performance art.

But just ask Pete Nance, who entered what could have been his final collegiate game last night having suffered through a 44-72 career record in Evanston, whether last night’s 71-69 victory over the Cornhuskers meant something to him and this program.

“You come into this year and you want to change things, and I think that this proves that we’re not the same team that we’ve been the past two or three years,” said Nance following his first Big Ten Tournament win. “I don’t know if that group would have been able to dig this game out, and instead we really came together and showed how much we love each other.”

The first half was filled with sloppy play from everyone wearing a Wildcat uniform, including Nance, who was picked off twice on his usually steady high-post passes and only converted on two field goals.

Old Northwestern might have gone away from the senior star and been unable to crack the code that put them in a 14-point hole at halftime. Instead, the ‘Cats trusted their best player, running one of their pet actions (a “Chicago” DHO into a post entry with the floor spread) and trusted Nance to make the right decision.

He’s in full control there, patiently waiting with each dribble and tempting Lat Mayen to help down just enough that he can rifle a one-handed skip to Chase Audige, leaving the defense no chance of recovering to get a good contest on the shot. That first one-handed dime must have unlocked something in Nance, as just minutes later he reeled off another one, this time hitting Ty Berry through the narrowest of windows after he backdoored in the corner out of NU’s base horns set.

Add it all up, and the player who shined most brightly all season for Northwestern showed out with a 14-8-8 stat line with the year on the line.

The other “star” for this team who has oscillated between being a beacon of positivity and a catastrophic supernova is Boo Buie, who was trending much toward the latter through 20 minutes in Indianapolis.

“I wasn’t making shots, I was turning the ball over... I got frustrated with myself and just let my emotions out,” said Buie on his first half performance. Collins added that Buie had a loud confrontation with his brother and assistant coach Talor Battle at the break, which Collins and Buie credited for his improved performance in the second.

“My teammates were really there for me, picking me up and kept saying positive things to me,” Buie said. “If I was on another team, I would have been dead in the water, but my teammates kept a lot of positivity in my head, and it allowed me to come out in the second half and play a lot better.”

Maligned often by fans and media for his decision making, particularly when it comes to shot selection in crucial situations, Buie’s never-ending confidence was a boon for the ‘Cats throughout the comeback, capped off with this off-movement three too put them up by four with just under two minutes to go.

That’s a brilliant design, flowing immediately out of the box set for the sideline out of bounds to Buie setting a flex screen for Audige to draw the defense’s attention. Nebraska has to respect that given that Nance had burned them with passes on similar cuts like the one to Berry shown above. Buie immediately peels off to receive a reverse flare from Ryan Young and has the opening, which he would then capitalize on with an ice cold three.

It’s brilliant execution, and an off-move three against a defense with its season on the line is never an easy shot. It requires nerves of steel and an indefatigable sense that even a shot as tough as that one can be a death knell for the opponent. Buie turned off that Young screen knowing he was going to shoot and knowing it was going to fall, and his confidence and growth paid off in that moment.

Of course, that was not the guard’s most impactful play of the night, as the charge he took on Nebraska’s Alonzo Verge Jr. with Northwestern up only one and the game clock having ticked under 10 seconds (probably should have been called a foul on Ju Roper be damned) all but saved the game for the ‘Cats.

Buie’s defense has never been his strong suit, and Collins went so far as to quip that “that might have been the first charge he’s ever taken in his life.” But given the chance to just fade into the background, Buie stepped to the plate and above the charge circle to lead his team to the win. Three years in Evanston, and he has grown like the team around him, even if the season-long results didn’t end up as everything that people wanted them to be.

It doesn’t fix the past damning errors, and it can only serve as a silver lining on this otherwise dismal campaign from the basketball program for so long, but on special night in Indianapolis, Northwestern proved that it had taken a step forward, winning its first Big Ten Tournament game since the legendary 2017 squad did five years ago to the day.

“For your legacy, you want to be able to have some postseason success, and the last three years, we’ve come up short for those seniors,” Collins postgame. “It really meant a lot to me to see those guys come here, get a win and have a chance to play tomorrow.”

There’s a higher than 50% chance that Northwestern’s season will end just hours after the publication of this article as the ‘Cats take on the same Iowa team that beat them by 21 points just 10 days ago. But no matter what happens in that game, Nance, Buie and everyone in the purple and white made a statement in battling back on Wednesday night.