Northwestern basketball had a lot on the line Sunday night against Rutgers.
The Wildcats delivered.
Chris Collins’ squad defeated Rutgers, 65-53, securing the 2-seed in the Big Ten Tournament and breaking the program record for most Big Ten wins in a season. Brooks Barnhizer led the way with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Cliff Omoruyi put up 14 points and six rebounds in a losing effort as the regular season came to a close.
Five seconds into the game, the Scarlet Knights took the lead when senior Paul Mulcahy threw an ally oop to Omoruyi, and Northwestern turned over the ball on their first possession. After a few back-and-forths without points, Matthew Nicholson was denied by Omoruyi and responded with a block of his own on Mulcahy.
After a missed three by Chase Audige two minutes in, Aundre Hyatt hit a triple to give Rutgers a 5-0 lead. Northwestern started 0-for-5 before Ty Berry canned a three-pointer to give the Wildcats their first points of the game and cut the RU lead to 5-3. Neither team could get much going on offense in the first few minutes, and at the first commercial break, it was 5-3 in favor of the Scarlet Knights.
Out of the break, Rutgers sandwiched a steal between two quick baskets to jump to a sudden 10-3 lead. The next possession, Berry made his second basket of the game to make it 10-5. The junior was the only Northwestern player to score in the opening six minutes, and remained the ‘Cats’ lone scorer until Barnhizer drove past McConnell to put the Wildcats within three with 13:39 to go in the half.
Omoruyi missed both his free throws on the next possession, and Barnhizer got a his second consecutive shot to go in. Rutgers continued to come up dry on offense, and a Audige three gave the ‘Cats their first lead of the game and made it a 9-0 run. Immediately after, though, Rutgers freshman Derek Simpson got an and-one to tie the game at 12 going into a media break.
Simpson missed his free throw coming out of the timeout, and Nick Martinelli soon found Matthew Nicholson for a dunk to give Northwestern another two point lead. Then, on the next ‘Cats possession, Audige lobbed the ball to Nicholson for his second consecutive dunk. Then, sandwiched between a Rutgers turnover and an Audige block, Barnhizer had his third basket go to put Northwestern up six.
The Scarlet Knights quickly went cold after their early surge and found themselves scoreless for over six minutes in the middle of the first half, and while Northwestern had its own dry-spell, the ‘Cats were still up 18-12 with 7:27 left in the first period.
Antwone Woolfolk hit a layup with five minutes remaining in the half to give Rutgers their first points since the 11:26 mark, and Boo Buie pushed off on McConnell for his second foul of the game on the next possession. Buie was subbed out and did not play for the rest of the half.
After a longer TV break due to smoke emerging from the Jersey Mike’s Arena scoreboard (yes, this actually happened; yes, it was as ridiculous as it sounded), the game resumed with Barnhizer’s fourth basket to give Northwestern their first make from the field in over six minutes.
The next possession, Tydus Verhoeven put up his own try for his first points. Robbie Beran got in on the action, with a triple to give Northwestern a 25-15 lead, their largest of the half. A 6-0 Rutgers run to close the half, including a Spencer three and layups from Simpson and Omoruyi, left the score 25-21 in the visitors’ favor at halftime.
Both teams came up blank to start the second half, and a free throw from Hyatt opened up the second half scoring to make it a one-possession game. Buie turned over the ball on the ensuing possession and quickly picked up his third foul of the game, pulling him out of the contest once more.
Barnhizer then hit a mid-range shot to give Northwestern their first points of the half and restored the lead to five. After Spencer hit two free throws, the Wildcats put together two straight buckets from Berry and Nicholson to draw their lead to 31-24 at the under-16 minute media timeout.
Right after the commercial, Barnhizer continued to light it up. He hit his first triple of the game and blew by his defender on the next NU possession. Behind the sophomore’s strong showing, the Wildcats found themselves up 10 at the under-12 break.
After the hosts moved within single digits, Buie reemerged for his first points of the game on a three point play to silence the crowd. This was also Northwestern’s first free throw opportunity of the game, coming at the 9:33 mark of the second half. Berry got into double digits with a layup the next possession, extending the NU lead to 13
Though the Scarlet Knights got back within single digits behind four consecutive Mulcahy free throws, an Audige alley-oop to Nicholson got the Wildcats’ back to 11 up and once again quieted the scarlet faithful. Buie proceeded to deliver what amounted to a dagger, dropping his first three to put Northwestern up a game-high 14 points.
Though Rutgers held its own with some makes to stay alive, Buie hit another two triples to reinstate the 14-point advantage. The Wildcats were up 56-44 when Steve Pikiell took his final timeout with 3:23 remaining.
The rest of the game was slow, and though Rutgers would get their chances, Northwestern would not fold enough to cause an impact on the result of the game. The ‘Cats continued to sink enough of their free throws to put the game out of reach for the Scarlet Knights, securing a massive win in a hostile environment.
After securing the double bye with the win, the ‘Cats will now look to Friday at 5:30 p.m. CT, when they’ll begin their Big Ten Tournament against the winner of Thursday’s Penn State vs. Illinois clash at United Center.