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Even in tough loss, Northwestern shows why it has potential to be special

Regardless of the result, what the Wildcats did Wednesday night was no easy feat.

Syndication: Journal-Courier Alex Martin/Journal and Courier / USA TODAY NETWORK

In 2023, Northwestern basketball did something it never had in its entire history — take down the No. 1 team in the country. Moreover, the ‘Cats did it twice, beating No. 1 Purdue at Welsh-Ryan Arena twice on Feb. 12 and Dec. 1.

Both were followed by court storms, attention from the national media and elevated expectations. Similar to the team that beat Purdue for the first time nearly a year ago, this current Northwestern squad brings optimism into every game.

Yet, not many thought that the ‘Cats could go into Mackey Arena on Wednesday night and get a win. Triumphing against a top-two team on the road in a place the home side rarely loses is a whole different animal.

And yes, while Northwestern did end up falling to No. 2 Purdue 105-96 in overtime, the Wildcats showed the Big Ten, and the entire basketball world, why they have a legitimate chance to be special. Northwestern took the Boilermakers wire-to-wire, and even with Purdue shooting 46 free throws compared to Northwestern’s eight, the Wildcats were in the game the entire time.

Throughout the first half, the ‘Cats did what an underdog needs to do on the road. In a hostile environment, Northwestern stuck in there; though Purdue led for most of the half, it seemed like whenever the Boilermakers scored, Chris Collins’ squad would respond. Boo Buie and Ty Berry each hit at least three triples in the first half to keep Northwestern afloat. While the Boilermakers won’t admit it, Purdue was getting a sense of deja vu.

At the 3:46 mark of the first half, it seemed like Purdue was about to throw a knockout punch, taking its largest lead of the game at 11 with a Camden Heide dunk to put Mackey in a spiral. But, what did the Wildcats do? They answered immediately, with a Buie three-pointer cutting the lead to eight. The margin stayed that way entering halftime, doing exactly what a good team does in a game it’s not supposed to win — staying competitive.

The Wildcats turned remaining alive into having a legitimate chance to win in the second half, cutting down the lead in the first five minutes. Purdue, one of the top teams in the country, couldn’t get rid of NU. Whenever the Boilermakers scored, the ‘Cats matched their lofty marks, and when Ryan Langborg tied the game with just under 12 minutes to go, there was a real chance for Northwestern to win.

In the last 10 minutes of regulation, Northwestern proved it can play with the best teams in America. The Wildcats have four Quad One wins as it is — over Purdue, Illinois, Michigan State and Dayton — and this performance was just as impressive. The ‘Cats continued to ride their top scorers in Buie, Berry and Brooks Barnhizer; tied with the final shot in regulation, the game was dictated by the team in purple. That’s what made it so crushing when Buie couldn’t hit the game-winning floater as time expired.

Overtime, though, was a different story. With Matthew Nicholson and Luke Hunger fouling out, there was no response for Edey, who was limited to only 20 points in regulation. Edey feasted for 10 points in the extra frame, showing why he is one of the biggest mismatches for any team and one of the best players in America.

Though there should not be many moral victories — nor will Collins or players take them — what Northwestern did showed why it can beat anyone. The Wildcats have one of the best guards in the country in Buie, who had 25 on seven made threes in the loss. If they get scoring production from Berry, Barnhizer or Langborg, they legitimately have a shot in any game, regardless of who they play.

This season, Northwestern has become almost a polar opposite of what it was a year ago. At this point last year, the ‘Cats would win rock fights and pride themselves on defensive stops. But now, they rely on their offensive stars, whether Buie, Berry, Barnhizer or Langborg, to get the job done — make the tough shots and lead them to victory. Though the formula is different, it’s leading to almost exactly same outcome.

That creed is what will make Northwestern dangerous come March. The Wildcats will, most of the time, have the best player on the court in Buie, along with others who have scoring potential. For Big Ten teams, this will be scary come conference tournament time in Minneapolis. If Northwestern does end up making the NCAA Tournament, who knows what it can do. This isn’t saying the Wildcats will go on a run in the tournament; it just says they have the chance to do so.

Northwestern has a coach who stands behind his players and displays passion every single night. A year-and-a-half ago, Collins was on the hot seat, and on Wednesday, he got ejected with one second to go in overtime, storming onto the court and having to be held back from players and coaches. Afterward, he shook hands with Purdue coach Matt Painter and Edey, while also playing with the crowd on his way out. Collins left it all out on the floor, and that’s something that rallies a program.

To be clear: Northwestern has work to do. The ‘Cats still have to win double-digit Big Ten games in order to be an NCAA Tournament team.

But, even in a loss, the Wildcats showed why they have the opportunity to end the year in with another sought-after postseason berth in a distant city. They proved it last night: no hill is too tough to climb. Not every game will be a success, but Northwestern will always have a chance.