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Northwestern enters Selection Sunday with a bitter taste of déjà vu

NU’s two matchups against Penn State were eerily similar, and so are the lingering questions.

Northwestern v Penn State Photo by Aaron J. Thornton/Getty Images

Yesterday may not have been Friday the 13th, but Northwestern-Penn State had all of the elements to make it seem like it was.

It wasn’t a horror movie in the way Northwestern’s last Big Ten Tournament game — a gory 112-76 loss to Iowa in Indianapolis exactly 365 days from Friday — was. Instead, what happened at the United Center looked like a snippet of a film that looked so unoriginal that it was almost funny, like something you’d see in a Geico commercial to make a point. All there was to think about down the stretch was, “Wow, this sure looks like Senior Night at Welsh-Ryan Arena.”

It was borderline creepy how similar the two games were. Both were rock fights that featured dozens of short stretches where it seemed like each team would take over for good. And every NU fan on Friday got their “No, don’t go into the graveyard!” moment when Andrew Funk had a chance for an open, buzzer-beating three-pointer at the end of regulation for the second time in 10 days.

It didn’t drop, but Seth Lundy’s go-ahead, contested trey over Brooks Barnhizer’s right fingertips with less than a minute to go in overtime did. While it wasn’t the moment that put the game away, it allowed the ‘Cats to see the dagger drawn, and watch the ominous possibility of déjà vu manifesting itself.

To call this an instance of a two-seed shockingly giving away a game to an underdog 10-seed would be a gross oversimplification. Penn State’s offensive philosophy might match up with Northwestern better than that of any other team in the Big Ten. It makes shooting 32% from the field and still managing to come this close to a victory hurt that much more.

So what do you do when heartbreak strikes twice? With a Round of 64 game now less than a week away, Boo Buie seems to be staying level-headed.

“We’re going to go back, and we’re going to watch film,” Buie said. “Everything is still in the positive. Our season’s not done yet. We’re playing in the Tournament and a chance to win some games; that right there is motivating alone. Just like any other night, though, you win some, you lose some, but you’ve got to come back with the same attitude. Nothing changes. Just you’ve got to get better.”

It’s an approach the team has adopted all season long, even when it took down Purdue, Indiana and Iowa in the span of a week. The success that’s stemmed from it has surrounded the team with an aura that unlike their past iterations, the Wildcats will continue to find a way to prevent negative momentum from building up and keep the bright lights from blinding them.

Reading the faces of the ‘Cats down the stretch, it was clear that hasn’t changed. It’s why even though NU has dropped four of its last five, it’s a sense of curiosity regarding whether the ‘Cats are capable of making noise in a week — not a sense of panic — that persists. When Robbie Beran added to his best offensive performance in months with a go-ahead bucket with 1:08 to go in the second half, prompting a Penn State timeout, assistant coach Talor Battle stretched his hands downward, urging Northwestern to remain calm and poised.

At a different place on the emotional spectrum, when Beran sat by the scorer’s table to check in early in overtime, and Penn State possessed the ball up three with a chance to establish crucial momentum and silence the Northwestern fans in attendance, the senior had a smile on his face.

Once again, that calm resilience shone in flashes on the court. The Nittany Lions constantly hunted for switches that left Jalen Pickett backing down Buie without the full benefit of NU’s typical post double-team, given the ‘Cats played smaller with Beran as the de-facto center to rotate more fluidly and keep PSU’s perimeter threats from getting hot. Buie responded by improving defensively throughout the game, and Northwestern forced 15 turnovers en route to outscoring Penn State 23-2 off giveaways.

There was perhaps no greater display of that strength than when Brooks Barnhizer scored five straight points with the team down seven, without Audige or Buie on the floor, just when Penn State seemed to be pulling away with a little under 10 minutes to go in regulation.

There were many positive signs on Friday, and there always have been. But the question remains for Northwestern: are those merely signs, making the ‘Cats especially prone to suffering from the thrilling randomness that is postseason college basketball, or are those flashes the foundation for another consistent, extended run?

It’s hard to argue the latter right now, given how mightily Northwestern has struggled on the offensive end. Buie, Barnhizer, Chase Audige and Ty Berry combined to go a whopping 14-of-54 from the field. Even though each of those four stepped up with big moments throughout the second half and overtime, the shooting struggles proved to be fatal as they often have these last few weeks. For the ‘Cats to go on a run, that’s the first thing that has to change.

“What I want them to do now is, when they find out on Sunday, we need to go and we need to be loose,” Chris Collins said. “We need to play with reckless abandon. We need to be locked in. We need to play our defense. We need to shoot our shots. There’s no reason for us to be tight, to be on our heels in any way. I want these guys to go out and play the way they’ve played a majority of the season with 21 wins. I’m looking forward to that.”

As Collins implied, Northwestern’s even-keeled nature doesn’t mean it has to come into the NCAA Tournament with a blank slate mindset. The ‘Cats have proven time and time again that they can rebound from tough defeats.

But after Sunday, Northwestern is only going to have one more opportunity to do that. And it will need more than a short bounce-back to turn this magical season into the best in school history.