Confidence can be contagious.
Northwestern certainly had it as the team headed to Lincoln to face Nebraska for the first time as members of the Big Ten. A win over Minnesota had helped redefine the team’s identity and enabled it to find a comfort with all the injuries that have befallen the team. A chance to get back to .500 in the Big Ten would restore hope in everyone.
Unfortunately, struggling too can be contagious. And the Wildcats did that Saturday in a 64-49 loss to the Cornhuskers.
After controlling the pace of the game and slowing the game down in the first half, Northwestern lost its stranglehold on the game. Nebraska kept NU on the perimeter and made Northwestern a pure shooting team. The Cornhuskers then came down and broke down the Wildcats’ 1-3-1 zone, or matchup 2-3, with quick passing and timely shooting. Northwestern let the lead get away and could not get back within striking distance.
For every (rare) Northwestern field goal, there was a Nebraska 3-pointer to match. The Wildcats could not match and the second half was spent slowly watching the Cornhuskers expand the lead.
This was not a particularly strong game for Northwestern after grinding its way through the first half.
The Wildcats shot 32 percent in the first half and ended the game at 32.1 percent from the floor. NU shot 6 for 29 from beyond the arc and a horrid 7 for 16 from the foul line. Northwestern was not making shots in any stretch of the imagination. That made things more difficult as the lead got bigger and bigger.
When the game was slowed down and Nebraska was kept to the perimeter — and off the offensive glass — Northwestern could survive without making shots. Nebraska though was as patient and disciplined as Northwestern usually is in running its offense and defense and eventually broke Northwestern down.
The Cornhuskers were absolutely killer against the Wildcats’ 1-3-1 zone. They were able to break the traps and dribble into the paint, wreaking havoc on the defense by dishing out to the perimeter or shooting at the rim with an offensive player in position to rebound. Dylan Talley score 20 points and Ray Gallegos had 11 points, including three 3-pointers. Cornhuskers center Brandon Ubel had 14 points and 12 rebounds, including seven offensive rebounds.
A lot of that work from all three players came in the second half when Nebraska outscored NU 40-27.
Northwestern’s offense was not able to ramp it up. Not with the team struggling to make shots or develop much fluidity and rhythm.
The Wildcats were largely kept on the perimeter and prevented from getting the backdoor cuts and open 3-pointers. Only Dave Sobolewski was able to create dribble penetration and get into the interior during the second half. Sobolewski played a superb game with 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting and 4-for-8 shooting from beyond the arc.
Northwestern though had very little else going offensively. Jared Swopshire did most of his offensive damage in the first half, on his way to 11 points and
14 16 rebounds. He made just 4 of his 10 shots.
The most telling number though was the Wildcats’ nine assists to 11 turnovers. The team’s typically dependable assist-to-turnover ratio was nonexistent and the Cornhuskers sped the game up by getting out in transition.
That put the game in Nebraska’s court and Northwestern did not have the ability to climb back into the game. And so all the positive momentum built from the last two weeks came to a screeching halt, so to speak. A winnable game had passed (at least by records) and a chance to climb back to .500 ended in the Nebraska plains.
The Wildcats were probably much closer than the final score would suggest. Their inability to hit shots and find offensive rhythm made the margin what it was. That might be the most frustrating thing of all.