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Though error-filled, Northwestern’s road win over Penn State is a marker of progress

Not NU’s best performance, but a resilient one,

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Collins triumphed his way back into the locker room following the final buzzer in Wednesday’s win at Penn State. When he entered, Collins was greeted by a symphony of shouting players who were spraying water at their coach out of Gatorade bottles. But why?

It wasn’t a March Madness win. It didn’t clinch a bye in the conference tourney. It wasn’t even a rivalry game — at least not officially. So what warranted the jubilation?

You have to go back to Dec. 27, 2016 for an answer. That was the last time Northwestern beat Penn State in Happy Valley. Boo Buie, the longest tenured ‘Cat on the roster, was a sophomore in high school at the time. In fact, Buie had only beaten Penn State once in his illustrious career, losing the other six outings.

Collins certainly remembers all of the woes his teams have endured against the Nittany Lions, and most of this year’s starters can at least recall last season’s contests against PSU — two overtime losses, one in the Big Ten Tournament.

Amidst a Cinderella-esque campaign from NU in 2022-23, Penn State dealt blows to the team’s morale. In the span of just ten days, the ‘Cats fell twice to Penn State, both times in the Chicago-Evanston area.

In each of those defeats, NU led heading into halftime. In the March 1 meeting, the ‘Cats only turned the ball over five times to the Nittany Lions’ 13. On March 10, that margin only improved — four to 15, respectively. And not to mention that Penn State boasted a losing record in conference play heading into both games.

So how did Northwestern lose…not once, but twice? The answer: three-point shooting, defensive poise and Buie’s efficiency. In those games, Penn State shot a better clip from three-point land, which was painfully evident when the ‘Cats hit only 25% of their threes in the second meeting.

The most painful part of those losses were the nail-biting endings, which tilted Penn State’s way both times. It wasn’t luck that PSU sank its big shots, though. It was because miscommunications on defense and a lack of physicality enabled the Nittany Lions’ scorers to take open shots, particularly from deep range.

And, if it isn’t already abundantly clear, this team goes as Buie does. Of course, contributions from Ty Berry, Brooks Barnhizer and Ryan Langborg this year have taken some of the load off of him. Still, it’s indisputable that a poor outing for Buie spells disaster for this team. In the March matchups versus Penn State, the then-senior averaged a field goal percentage of 38.1%, couldn’t hit his threes and made it to the free throw line only three times across his 76 minutes of combined playing time.

Now in the context of a broader picture, the locker room bonanza makes plenty of sense. Aside from picking up a recently hard-to-come-by win against an in-conference foe, the way in which Northwestern won was emblematic of how it’s changed as a program.

This year’s win couldn’t have stood in any stronger contrast to last season’s losses — for better and for worse. Northwestern turned the ball over 18 times on Wednesday, nine more than it did between last season’s defeats combined. The ‘Cats didn’t lead heading into halftime, as they had in the prior two matchups. In fact, it took until the final few media timeouts for NU to claim its first lead of the night. Northwestern got bullied on the boards, being out-rebounded on offense nine to two.

But the things that changed for the better were just as starkly noticeable, if not more so. The team shot a collective 58.3% from three-point land, and it hit over 60% of its total field goals. As the game progressed, the ‘Cats’ awareness improved, adjusting to Penn State’s nagging full-court pressure on offense and the Nittany Lions’ off-ball movement on defense. And Buie, out for revenge and his first win against PSU since before the pandemic, shot 66.67% from the field with help from an improved veteran backcourt.

Barnhizer had a career day, leading NU scorers with 23 on a blistering 8-of-11 clip. Berry seemingly couldn’t miss from three, cashing in his first four attempts from deep. Even Langborg, who couldn’t buy a shot for most of the day, nabbed one of his two buckets on the day during a 15-0 Northwestern run that put the ‘Cats in the driver’s seat.

Northwestern has plenty to improve on when they battle No. 15 Wisconsin on Saturday. But for now, the progress that’s been made since the team lost two heartbreaking battles last spring is undeniable. This team is full of more veterans, savvier decision makers and resilient playmakers.