Yesterday, Brooks Barnhizer arrived with a thunderclap and a rim in his hands.
Down 11 just three minutes earlier in Pinnacle Bank Arena, Northwestern had embarked on an 8-0 run to bring itself within three points of Nebraska with just under seven minutes to play. As Brice Williams tried to settle the Cornhuskers down with a soft pass to forward Rienk Mast, Barnhizer swooped in front of the big man to intercept it. He coasted to the hoop, rose up and threw down a two-handed dunk.
The junior swung on the rim for a second, as if this bucket meant a little more. It might have. The fastbreak slam brought his scoring total to 22 points, putting him one bucket away from beating the career high he set less than two weeks ago at Penn State. Barnhizer had scored 16 of his Northwestern’s 29 second-half points by that point, and his defense single-handedly kept the ‘Cats in a game that should have gotten away from them several times.
His dunk planted a spherical, Wilson-shaped sword into the ground. No. 13 was emphatically making his claim to an All-Big Ten selection and the right of entry into the Big Ten’s pantheon of great players. In other words, Barnhizer was taking The Leap™.
For a moment, it looked like Northwestern was, too. On a day where Boo Buie shot 2-of-15 from the field and the Huskers shot 70% in the first half, the Wildcats were somehow in position to seize momentum on the road. It had displayed the same resilience down the stretch as it had in its November victory over No. 21 Dayton, when Northwestern held it together after Buie picked up his fourth foul with nine minutes left.
However, as they failed to do last Saturday against No. 11 Wisconsin, the Wildcats couldn’t capitalize on their comeback run. Their three-pointers rimmed out while Keisei Tominaga stabbed a dagger, and Northwestern missed out on one of its last feasible opportunities at a Quad 1 win.
This was a loss one could frame either way. As mentioned above, Northwestern displayed immense resilience on the road. In many respects, NU had no business winning this game. Buie played his worst game of the season thanks to some terrific defense from Williams and Mast. Ty Berry shot 2-of-8, and Northwestern’s constant miscommunication on high screen actions allowed Josiah Allick to feast inside in the first half. The Cornhuskers made more than half of their threes. Yet, a secondary star in Barnhizer stepped up and took over the game, and Northwestern forced 18 turnovers to keep itself within reach.
On the other hand, those shooting woes did happen, and NU’s interior defense lost it the game. Paint protection remains a significant long-term concern. Had the ‘Cats not ripped off a 15-0 run in Happy Valley, there’s a very good chance that weakness would’ve also cost Northwestern that tilt. For the second straight week, NU couldn’t make the plays it needed in the final two minutes to secure a Quad 1 win on the road.
Was this a game Northwestern should have won? Not at all. Was its failure to close the game out a reason to panic? No. Just rewatch the Maryland win. Close games like these are coin flips, and more often than not, the home team prevails.
To separate itself from the postseason bubble, though, Northwestern needs to go above and beyond that when it puts itself in contention to win. Defeating a quality opponent in its own building would have greatly strengthened NU’s resume.
The problem is, Northwestern isn’t going to have too many more opportunities to do that. Barring a miracle at Purdue on Jan. 31, the ‘Cats currently have just one winnable Quad 1 game on the road left: a rematch with Michigan State in March. If NU can’t win either of those contests or defeat No. 14 Illinois, which will likely have Terrence Shannon Jr. back, it cannot afford many slip-ups in the other 10 games it’ll play during the regular season. In the Big Ten, that’s a lot to ask for.
With the emergence of the Mountain West (six teams have higher KenPom and NET rankings than NU), it’s unlikely that 11 Big Ten wins and three Quad 1 victories alone will guarantee an NCAA Tournament berth. The Wildcats need a few more signature victories on the way to that threshold, and they couldn’t earn one at Nebraska even after seizing control of the game. As it has before, shoddy interior defense and an unbalanced scoring attack proved decisive.
Barnhizer might have taken a leap in Lincoln. Now, Northwestern needs to do the same as it enters a grueling three-game stretch.