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For Northwestern, “heart” can only go so far

Despite a valiant comeback, the Wildcats should view Wednesday’s loss as a wake-up call.

@NUMensBball on Twitter.

As Paul Mulcahy’s three-ball arced mid-air with 9:05 left in the ball game, the fervent waving of neon balloons momentarily halted. By the time the shot landed — and swished unblemished through the net — the Rutgers Scarlet Knights led 47-39, taking command of a hard-fought contest that they had led all the way. Northwestern head coach Chris Collins swiftly called timeout to gather his troops.

Suddenly, four minutes later, the resilient Wildcats had narrowed the deficit to four. After a high bank layup from Boo Buie fell, Northwestern was down just four to the delight of those donning purple and white. Just two Chase Audige buckets later, and the ‘Cats were in front for the first time all evening.

The final four minutes were certainly thoroughly entertaining, but also heart rate-spiking for a fan of either side. The two defense-dominant squads would change leads six times in what felt like a quarter of its own.

Though not a lead change, one moment seemed to put the nail in a scarlet coffin. With under four seconds on the shot clock, Northwestern sophomore Julian Roper II forced a miraculous three in the midst of a scattered possession. With the ‘Cats up one, the shot kissed off the backboard and in — sending the crowd into a frenzy. A miracle had been bestowed by the basketball gods; NU led by four with 1:14 remaining and would escape with a come-from-behind, impressive win.

Or so we thought.

In the final 75 seconds, Mulcahy posted two free throws to cut the Wildcat lead to two. Then, out of a timeout, the Scarlet Knights’ Cam Spencer — a stone-cold killer all night, especially from deep — sank his sixth three-pointer to give RU a lead it would not relinquish.

On “Retro Night,” the Wildcats paid homage to more of the infamous play in the Chris Collins Era that has doomed countless talented teams over the last six seasons, yet seemingly not this group. And yet, the memories had conjured again.

Following the crushing defeat, Collins praised his team for battling throughout.

“I thought our guys hung in there at times when we would have breaking points,” Collins said postgame. “Super proud of my team. Love the heart. Love the fight.”

Undoubtedly, Northwestern should be commended for its ability to stay afloat despite not leading until the 4:30 mark of the second half. Previous iterations of this squad likely would not have found such answers and actually acted upon them.

At the same time, the “heart” that Collins notes overshadows a more glaring issue: that Rutgers was the better team for the vast majority of Wednesday night’s clash.

Though neither side excelled from the floor, the Scarlet Knights were lights out from three at 61% — a full 24% better than the Wildcats from downtown. Though rebounding and turnover differences were minimal, the other glaring area was at the stripe: Rutgers at 80%, and Northwestern shooting an incomprehensibly low 56%.

Indeed, it was far from a banner night for the Knights offensively, but Steve Pikiell’s team simply did enough to keep the lead. Anchored by an all-world performance by Spencer, Rutgers also involved Mulcahy, Aundre Hyatt, Mawot Mag and others to keep its foot on the gas pedal.

Conversely, Northwestern’s offense sputtered for the first 54 or so minutes of the affair. While Ty Berry had surged in the second half, Audige was limited to only five points until late-game action. NU’s two main guards, Audige and Buie, combined to shoot just 8-for-25 from the floor; additionally, Robbie Beran was held scoreless until he made a free throw with 11:16 remaining.

NU’s offense has been its Achilles’ heel all year, and that remained true Wednesday. What was especially apparent, though, was just how much the Wildcats must rely on the offensive contributions of Audige to even give itself a fighting chance in games of this caliber.

To claw your way back and re-energize the packed student section is laudable, especially in a duel of two Big Ten foes with 11 or more wins. Yet, to subsequently lose that game and add one final descent in the rollercoaster ride erases most fond takeaways.

At 12-4 and 3-2 in conference play, Northwestern is still in relatively optimal position going forward. Though the Wildcats remain a scrappy, indefatigable team, some offensive identity must be established in the remaining 15 contests to avoid painstaking games like the one just witnessed.