For Northwestern, heading to Rutgers on the road with memories of Cam Spencer game-winning three-pointers in the rearview mirror felt like a point where an improbable season came to crash and burn in the face of high expectations.
With three consecutive losses against Illinois, Maryland and Penn State, and the difference between the second and ninth-seed in the Big Ten Tournament hanging in the balance, Piscataway, New Jersey didn’t seem like the place where Northwestern’s recent struggles would suddenly end.
But rather, Northwestern gritted out a hard-earned 65-53 victory, finishing the campaign second in the Big Ten with 12 conference wins, the most in school history.
Rutgers started quickly, as Paul Mulcahy tossed an alley-oop from thirty feet out to Cliff Omoruyi who slammed it home on top of Matthew Nicholson in the game’s first ten seconds.
But after a 10-3 Rutgers run out of the gate, Northwestern locked in, finishing the first frame on an extended 22-10 run to lead by four at the half. Brooks Barnhizer led Northwestern with eight first half points, picking up the slack for Northwestern’s struggling offense that didn’t see a Boo Buie bucket till the midway point of the second half.
Tasked to supplement the scoring, Barnhizer finished with his first career double-double, scoring a game-high 16 points, off 7-of-12 shooting alongside 10 rebounds. His confidence and impact on the team continued to shine, and Chris Collins is playing him because of his success. He’s shooting 55.6% from deep in his last five games, as well as effectively scoring the basketball by driving inside and utilizing his patented mid-range fadeaway. As another scoring option to complement Buie and Chase Audige, Barnhizer has now had five straight games of double-digit points.
It’s not just Barnhizer who’s peaking at the right time for the ‘Cats. Nicholson tallied 10 points and six boards, acting as a physical presence inside by finishing off dunks to emphatically keep Northwestern ahead. Ty Berry too, who’s struggled since his 26-point outburst against Nebraska, added 12 points and seven rebounds, providing timely buckets to keep Northwestern ahead.
In a night where Buie started slowly and Audige shot 1-of-10 from the field, Northwestern’s supporting cast proved to be the difference in a defensive battle.
Either in the Big Ten Tournament or March Madness, that supporting cast is what Northwestern needs moving forward. Teams are catching on to Boo Buie, doubling him high in the frontcourt, pressuring Northwestern’s offense from the top.
But if Barnhizer, Berry, Nicholson and the rest of Northwestern’s weapons can make shots and get to the basket, it takes the pressure off Buie to score, allowing him to be even more dynamic.
That’s what happened in Piscataway. Early Buie struggles kept the game close, but once Buie converted on a tough and-one layup, the offense began rolling, as the senior carried the ‘Cats to victory, connecting on his last four shots to finish with 14 points.
However, it wasn’t just the offense for Northwestern. In an ugly, low scoring game, the defense showed up too. Northwestern’s guards held Rutgers to 2-of-17 from deep, while Nicholson protected the paint with four blocks.
And remember Cam Spencer’s magical 23-point performance at Welsh-Ryan Arena back in January? Well this time, Northwestern held the sharpshooting guard to only nine points.
It wasn’t pretty, but the ‘Cats mustered a win they had to have. Coming off three consecutive losses, Northwestern needed to return to its winning ways heading into postseason play.
The difference between entering the conference tournament as a nine-seed with a loss against Rutgers and a two-seed with a win was huge, and the ‘Cats got the job done. Now, instead of rematching Rutgers, with the winner facing the top-seeded Boilermakers, they’ll wait on the winner of the Penn State vs. Illinois game Thursday for a 5:30 p.m. CST clash on Friday at the United Center.
Still, the win felt bigger than Big Ten Tournament seeding. The potential for four straight losses ahead of the Big Ten Tournament, with the chance of the fifth before heading into March Madness, would not only have tanked Northwestern’s spirit, but seeding heading into the Big Dance, ending a historic season anticlimactically.
Yes, this team continues to scare its fans with moments of offensive inconsistency, defensive lapses and questionable play, but on a night where the ‘Cats had to win, they did. They ended the season with four wins against ranked opponents, the most in program history, including their win over top-ranked Purdue on Super Bowl Sunday. Yet to finish the season off on a four game skid, struggling to capitalize on winnable games would have made their moments of ecstasy feel like a distant story.
The ‘Cats took care of business and righted the ship, securing either an opportunity to avenge their recent loss against the Nittany Lions or one final date against the Fighting Illini in the battle for Illinois.
The excitement and rollercoaster ride of Northwestern basketball is why the the ‘Cats have captured the hearts of Northwestern’s fans and are excited to keep proving the haters wrong as they start their postseason play.
But by beating Rutgers, Northwestern may have regained its mojo heading into college basketball’s craziest stretch.