Two overtime thrillers in enemy territory. Two losses. Two completely different stories.
Last Wednesday, Northwestern traveled to Mackey Arena to attempt a season sweep over No. 2 Purdue. It nearly did so. Despite shooting just eight free throws to Purdue’s astonishing 46, the Wildcats were able to capitalize off outstanding offensive performances from Boo Buie and Ty Berry, who combined for 13 threes, and take one of the best squads in the nation to overtime in its own arena.
Unfortunately, the magic ended in overtime. Purdue ran away with a 105-96 victory. However, the fact that the game even went to overtime was a pleasant surprise in and of itself. NU held its own against one of the country’s most prestigious teams in an arena regarded as hostile towards visiting teams, and it overcame some questionable officiating to make the game an instant classic. Despite the loss, Chris Collins and the ‘Cats could leave Mackey with their heads held high.
Saturday told a drastically different story. Northwestern headed to Williams Arena in Minneapolis to get back in the win column against a seemingly inferior Minnesota squad that had lost four of its last five contests. However, in large part due to NU’s 17 turnovers, Minnesota was able to remain within striking distance for all of regulation, even snatching a narrow lead before a pair of Buie free throws sent the game to overtime.
In the extra minutes, Minnesota forward Dawson Garcia drilled a clutch three-point shot and drained five shots from the charity stripe, effectively ending things for Northwestern. For the first time all season, the ‘Cats had dropped consecutive games.
This Wednesday, NU will try to avoid a third straight loss when it hosts Nebraska for a rematch after narrowly losing in Lincoln a couple of weeks ago. This time around, the ‘Cats will be able to feed off the energy of the Northwestern student section, and that should certainly be a factor in a possible redemption game. But it’s going to take more than a crowd of rowdy students donning cowboy hats to propel NU back into the win column.
For starters, Northwestern needs to limit its fouls against Nebraska. The free throw differential against Purdue was unacceptable, even if several of the calls didn’t seem fair. NU improved drastically in this aspect against Minnesota, and it will need to continue to keep its starters out of foul trouble to stymie Nebraska.
Second, Northwestern’s big men need to step up their games. Matt Nicholson, Luke Hunger and Blake Preston have combined for 10 total rebounds during Northwestern’s losing streak. A rough game was to be expected for the trio when they were matched up against Zach Edey, but their collective performance against Minnesota was concerning, to say the very least.
Their next matchup will likely be with Nebraska’s Rienk Mast, who currently leads the Cornhuskers in points per game (14.0), rebounds per game (8.2), and assists per game (3.0). If they want to bounce back, they will need to increase their assertiveness in the paint and lock Mast up for the majority of the game.
Finally, Northwestern needs to ensure that the turnover fiasco that cost them a win at Minnesota does not become a recurring theme as the season winds down. The ‘Cats have averaged 9.2 turnovers per game this year. In the first half alone against Minnesota, they turned the ball over 12 times. Everything else seemed to be going well for Northwestern. The team shot 47.8% from the three-point line and outrebounded the Golden Gophers, but the carelessness with the ball is what sealed its fate. That cannot happen if the ‘Cats hope to leave Welsh-Ryan Arena with a win.