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Nightmare second quarter leads to another tough defeat

It’s hard to win with a 12-minute drought without a make.

If you took out the second quarter, Northwestern actually would’ve been leading going into the final period.

Despite a cold start to the field in which Northwestern trailed 9-4, the Wildcats rallied back with a 16-7 run over the last five minutes of the first quarter. This included a final minute in which Jillian Brown cashed a right-corner three to break a 15-15 tie, then pulled up for a left elbow jumper that beat the buzzer. Heading into the second quarter, Northwestern led 20-16 over No. 8 Maryland and actually — for a few minutes — looked like the better team. The ‘Cats shot 50% from the field and were assisted on eight-of-nine makes, while holding the Terps to just 5-of-15 shooting.

Then, it all came tumbling down.

You can blame it on the shot selection. You can blame it on the No. 8 team in the country actually being significantly better than its 1-12 counterpart and playing strong defense. You can blame it on turnovers and not taking care of the ball. You could even tack it up to the ball just unluckily not going in the basket. The fact of the matter is that Northwestern went the entire second period without a made shot, and didn’t score any points until Courtney Shaw knocked down a pair of free throws with 27 seconds left in the half. The Wildcats, after leading going into the period, trailed 34-22 following the 18-2 quarter.

“Scoring is hard against Maryland,” Joe McKeown said after the game. “We’ve got to do a much better job attacking, trying to get better shots.”

McKeown added that he felt they did a good job of controlling the pace in the first half and keeping Maryland’s scoring low, but “just couldn’t find the rim.”

The third quarter was closer to the first, as the ‘Cats bounced back to score only three less than the Terrapins. Add the first and third together, and Northwestern would’ve led by one entering the fourth. Unfortunately, the game of basketball requires all four quarters to be counted in the box score.

For Northwestern, the Maryland game echoes a script that the ‘Cats have followed far too many times this season. In games like Thursday night’s, last week’s loss to Penn State and an earlier defeat to Michigan State, the Wildcats started out hot — or at least sufficient enough for an early lead — before going on a suffocating cold streak that ended any hopes of a win. In games like Nebraska, Wisconsin and Illinois, Northwestern effectively started the game asleep, then came roaring back to make it close in the end.

Would you believe that only one of those six games ended in a win?

The problem for the ‘Cats has been that they can either start games strong or end them strong, but the team can’t quite seem to put the two halves together. Northwestern is young, as everyone has been reassured multiple times during this losing season, and has plenty to learn from this year and work on. McKeown believes the biggest, and most important key to getting those two good halves to go together, is confidence.

“The teams that we’ve played that are at the top of our league, they have the ability to make runs,” McKeown said. “We were doing a great job defensively, and then Maryland was able to get out and run a little bit. You’ve got to stop runs. We talk every day about getting stops in practice, three in a row. I think we’re doing a lot of great things, we’ve just got to get back in some rhythm offensively.”

Even if the effort is there defensively, as McKeown said, the team still needs to find a consistent scoring output. The Wildcats’ offense is last in scoring, last in overall shooting percentage and last in three-point percentage in the Big Ten, and hasn’t seemed to get much better over the course of the season. For a season that was viewed to be developmental, there hasn’t appeared to be a ton of development.

With only five regular season games left on the schedule, the Wildcats need to focus on taking smarter shots, taking care of the ball, and just as importantly, knocking down open shots. These are all things Northwestern has struggled with this season, and while the first two may come a little easier, I have no doubt the ability to get the ball through the rim will come along if the ‘Cats can decrease their unforced errors.