With nine minutes to go, Northwestern was on the ropes in more ways than one.
Boo Buie had just picked up his fourth foul, which meant the Wildcats would lose their team captain and offensive centerpiece for a few crucial minutes. The foul sent Dayton’s Nate Santos to the line with a chance to break a 50-50 tie and give the lead back to the Flyers, who were a few minutes removed from answering Northwestern’s half-ending 11-0 run with an 11-point stretch of their own. Dayton’s ball movement out of the post and its three-point shooting were the driving factors behind that comeback.
It wasn’t a moment of total desperation, and Northwestern had rolled with the punches and thrown some of its own on both ends. You just didn’t know. You didn’t know who would respond to the absence of an All-Big Ten point guard and emotional leader for an extended period down the stretch. You didn’t know if a pre-Thanksgiving game that sounded more like Lake Michigan’s February wind whipping an emotional pendulum back-and-forth was the best place to grow and take formative baby steps toward adopting a season-long identity.
But most of all, you didn’t know if Northwestern could stray from the blueprint and still win against a quality opponent.
Northwestern’s 2022-23 season surprised everyone to the point where one could reflect and say: “I’ve seen it all. No way will this team shock me more than that.” With the ‘Cats mostly running it back, it was pretty easy to define the surprises as certainties.
Northwestern’s success starts and ends with Boo Buie. Northwestern’s going to double the post often, and it’ll win by forcing turnovers. Northwestern stuck to a blueprint last year, and it needs to do so again.
Yet, the only certainty so far is that Northwestern still hasn’t run out of surprises.
On the second possession after Buie checked out, Brooks Barnhizer threw out a flurry of moves in the high post. He picked up his dribble with eight seconds left in the shot clock, and for a moment, it looked like the ‘Cats would put up a sloppy possession. Instead, the junior pump-faked, created space and rose up for a one-legged, go-ahead fadeaway jumper.
After struggling to finish inside against a smaller Binghamton frontcourt on Monday, Barnhizer consistently nailed difficult shots like that one against Dayton’s taller forwards, no matter how tightly they defended him.
Less than a minute after, Nick Martinelli, who came off a minutes restriction against Binghamton due to a lower-body injury, ripped away an offensive rebound that he deposited for a putback. It was the culmination of a game where he fought through his injury to play 19 minutes, score nine points, rack up four steals and finish with a plus-minus of 15, the highest of anyone on either team. Just like that, Northwestern had gone on a 6-0 run without Buie and held a five-point lead that it wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the night.
“I think it’s awesome,” Chris Collins said about Northwestern’s response. “For a team to see there’s a lot of game pressure, the other team feels momentum, and now [Buie] picks up a fourth with almost 10 minutes to go. And it’s like, ‘Okay, Boo can’t save us right now. We’ve got to do this together.’”
Collins then praised the aggressiveness of Ryan Langborg, who dropped a team-high 19 points on a 6-of-9 clip. On a night where Dayton focused on pressuring Buie to keep his volume low, the grad transfer from Princeton thrived as a creator. Not only did he step up as a tertiary scoring threat, something that Northwestern tended to lack in 2022-23, he also proved he could function as a primary one both on and off the ball. His stellar first half took defensive attention away from his teammates in the second.
“Ryan does a great job being the secondary ball-handler,” Barnhizer said. “If he’s at the point spot, we can throw it back to me if we have a mismatch, or Ryan can take it up and we can still run everything that we run for Boo through Ryan. It’s good to have guys like that.”
Defensively, Collins was willing to adapt down the stretch. Holmes, who had six assists on the night, demonstrated that he could dominate Northwestern’s trademark post trap with his passing. Dayton, which shot 12-of-23 from beyond the arc, proved it could capitalize on NU’s late rotations. Instead of doubling down, Collins said he adjusted by removing the double-team and letting his bigs play one-on-one with Holmes. The Flyers kept hitting shots on the perimeter, but they were rarely open or early in the shot clock. Because of that, Dayton never seized momentum in the final 10 minutes.
But Anthony Grant’s team did shoot 12-of-17 from the field in the second half, and it did go 7-of-10 from three-point land. Defeating a team that shoots that well is difficult to begin with, but Northwestern’s heavy reliance on its post defense to force a rock fight — and its failure — made a win seem even more unlikely. Rarely did it happen in 2022-23. It’s also what made NU’s final two field goals its most important.
It seemed like every Wildcat perimeter player except Ty Berry, who was 1-of-5 with six minutes left, had moments where they stepped up offensively. And yet, that didn’t matter for Berry. He boxed out the 6-foot-7 Santos to snare an offensive rebound off a missed free throw before nailing a three-pointer. One minute later, he buried another one to extend Northwestern’s lead to seven.
“When he hit those shots, our whole team just lit up,” Langborg said. “We were happy for him, and it was so great to see him get that confidence back.”
Buie, who played efficiently and scored 15 points, didn’t have to be the primary bucket-getter late in the game because of plays like those. In fact, one could argue Northwestern didn’t have a go-to scorer that kept pace with Dayton’s hot shooting in the final 10 minutes. It was a combination of game-changing plays and the emergence of players like Langborg minimizing defensive pressure on others.
Northwestern didn’t just take baby steps. It ran in Game Two.
Right before Buie checked back in with four minutes left, Dayton’s Koby Brea hit a three to cut the seven-point deficit to four. In the face of that, Northwestern kept the same even keel that defined the five-minute stretch without its point guard.
“It was Coach saying, ‘We’re good. Next play mentality,’” Barnhizer said. “Even in practice, it’s like that. We were able to pull out the win because everything was the next play.”