Perhaps it was the students all along.
For the first time in the mostly joyless month since Northwestern knocked off No. 1 Purdue, Welsh-Ryan Arena was rocking and the ‘Cats had their swagger back.
Ty Berry scored a season-high 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting, Boo Buie added 10 assists without a turnover to an inspired defensive performance and Northwestern (11-3, 2-1 B1G) rebounded from its worst performance of the season in a blowout loss to Illinois to beat Michigan State (9-6, 1-3 B1G) 88-74 on Sunday night.
For the Spartans, Tyson Walker led the way with 27 points on 10-of-18 shooting from the field. A.J. Hoggard and Jaden Akins also reached double figures, notching 13 apiece.
The game was largely decided by ball security — Northwestern created a 13-5 turnover differential, and led the Spartans 21-2 in points off of turnovers. All five of the Wildcats’ starters finished with double-digit points, including 19 from Buie and 16 from Brooks Barnhizer.
Eyebrows were raised when Chris Collins named Luke Hunger in the starting lineup for the first time in his career ahead of Matthew Nicholson, but the Canadian sophomore provided a much needed scoring presence in the paint, putting up a career-high 10 points. It was only the second time all season Northwestern had a double-digit scoring performance from the center position.
Walker got the scoring started for MSU with a three-pointer just eight seconds into the game, but Hunger responded with a layup at the other end. The Spartans’ offense encountered a few early mishaps, committing an offensive foul and a traveling violation on back-to-back possessions. That allowed NU to go on a 6-0 run thanks to buckets from Buie, Barnhizer and Ryan Langborg, giving it a 10-8 lead at the first media timeout.
Jaden Akins connected on a three to briefly restore Michigan State’s lead, before two straight baskets from Berry put Northwestern up 14-11. A Walker make from beyond the arc and a Carson Cooper dunk allowed the Spartans to tie the game at 16-16.
While the ‘Cats have struggled at the center position this season, they benefitted immensely from offensive rebounding in the middle stages of the first half. Blake Preston and Nick Martinelli both grabbed one on a single possession (the latter would score), and Hunger turned an offensive board into a basket minutes later. Then, after a third Walker three extended MSU’s advantage to 22-18 halfway through the half, Hunger and Martinelli each made put-back layups and the score was level once more at 24-24.
At that point, the Wildcats’ offense began to heat up. In the space of two minutes, Buie hit his trademark floater, Langborg made a midrange jumper and Berry and Barnhizer both drained threes. Akins countered with five of his own for Michigan State in that period, but the NU lead remained 34-28 after Coen Carr missed two free throws.
Coming out of the half’s final media timeout, Buie recorded steals on back-to-back possessions, which Martinelli and Hunger cashed in on to give the ‘Cats their biggest lead of the game at 38-28. While an A.J. Hoggard three-point play put a stop to Northwestern’s 12-2 run, Buie responded with yet another steal and found Langborg for a deep three. The grad transfer then came up with a spectacular assist of his own, dishing it to Berry for a corner three as he was stumbling out of bounds. An acrobatic Buie bucket as time expired punctuated an 8-0 closing run and gave NU a 46-31 lead, its largest of the game to that point.
In the opening minutes of the second half, Michigan State found joy in the paint, with Sissoko and Cooper each making two layups. However, Northwestern quelled an early comeback with lights-out three-point shooting — Berry hit two more, while Langborg buried his second of the game. As the Spartans became increasingly frustrated, Walker picked up a technical foul, and Buie’s ensuing free throws put the ‘Cats up 59-41.
After Buie and Hunger each reached double-digits in scoring, giving NU a 66-47 advantage, MSU made its run. A Walker layup, followed up by consecutive Hoggard threes, cut the lead to 11 with just under eight minutes to play. The ‘Cats were able to weather the storm, however, with Barnhizer hitting a clutch three and a pair of free throws.
A breakaway dunk by Berry put the icing on the cake of what was a dominant Northwestern performance. It was a badly needed win for the ‘Cats, whose tournament resume accumulated significant baggage over the last month due to a home loss to Chicago State and a 30-point drubbing at Illinois.
Northwestern will continue its Big Ten schedule on Wednesday when it heads to Happy Valley to take on Penn State. Tip is set for 5:30 p.m. CT, and the game will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.