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For Northwestern, the final 20 minutes must become the focal point

NU’s two-game losing streak featured the same refrain.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Maryland Brent Skeen-USA TODAY Sports

When Jahmir Young crossed over Ty Berry, stepped back beyond the arc and let a frantic shot fly with only two seconds left in the first half, few were surprised with the outcome: a pure make from the Maryland guard. After all, the Terrapins shot lights out from deep in the half, making eight of 11 triples.

However, little panic set in for No. 21 Northwestern, which trailed 41-39 entering the locker room. The Wildcats had played a tenacious, back-and-forth half of basketball with one of the top teams in the conference — in maybe the toughest venue to play in the entire nation, the Xfinity Center.

When Chris Collins and his squad returned to the hardwood for the final 20 minutes, though, all of those positive sentiments dissipated in an instant.

In the second half, NU was outscored 34-20 by Maryland. Chase Audige, who powered the ‘Cats in the first half with 14 points, scored a mere two in the second, extending his streak of non-consecutive outstanding halves of basketball. Boo Buie, who was scoreless in the opening 20, made only one field goal. As a team, Northwestern shot only 8-of-26 in the last period, which featured multiple scoring droughts exceeding two minutes.

That recipe, as you might imagine, did not yield success. With Maryland virtually unable to miss from deep, the Terrapins rolled to a lopsided 75-59 win, dropping NU to 11-7 in conference play and into a four-way tie for second place in the Big Ten.

The event of actually collapsing in the second half was striking enough, but it underscored a more alarming trend that’s emerged for much of the last few weeks: Northwestern has been a bad basketball team in the last 20 minutes of games.

Just this week, NU led Illinois 37-19 at the break; it felt like a sort of nirvana had been reached playing to that high of a level in Champaign, where the ‘Cats hadn’t won since 2012. Fast forward just 15 minutes later, and Northwestern not only had no answer for Terrance Shannon Jr., but also could not score — despite Boo Buie establishing a career-high 35 points. The Illini won 66-62 in triumphant fashion.

While Collins & Co. did maintain its 11-point advantage over Iowa on Feb. 19, the Wildcats performed a similar collapse against Indiana on Feb. 15. In nearly the blink of an eye, a 19-point lead evaporated as Trayce Jackson-Davis and the Hoosiers roared all the way back, tying the game with seconds left. Only a Buie game-winning floater saved Northwestern from spectacularly embarrassing heartbreak.

The fact that NU continues to play such high-level basketball to start games helps to inject life into the team and prevent early deficits, which can be especially tough to overcome in formidable arenas. However, those leads mean little if teams don’t maintain a similar level of play or energy.

As March nears and Northwestern sets its sights on the Big Ten Tournament and March Madness, the same issues have continued to rear their ugly heads: the lack of scoring outside of Buie, consistency from Audige in recent weeks, avoiding debilitating team-wide offensive droughts. With only two games left in the regular season and little time for major tweaks, those problems appear somewhat inherent to the Wildcats, who have persisted despite such challenges.

What is particularly frightening, though, is the development of this latest flaw: choking very winnable games, a vulnerability that has plagued Northwestern and Collins for countless years. There’s no question that this team has responded to challenges to be better in clutch situations and to play with more composure — which it’s done for much of the 2022-23 season — but to revert to old habits this late is worrisome.

Part of NU’s late-game lapses can certainly be attributed to the quality of its opposition, not to mention those accompanying fanbases. At the end of the day, though, this element falls squarely on Northwestern and Collins. If the Wildcats want to do more than simply make the NCAA Tournament, they simply have to keep their foot on the gas pedal coming out of the locker room — or else risk watching not only their leads, but also the magic of their season disappear instantly.