Northwestern’s unexpected, feel-good run is over. After winning five of its last seven games (all as the underdog), Northwestern was grounded Saturday. NU came in as the favorite and came out on the short end of a 53-49 Nebraska win.
In what Coach Chris Collins called a “fistfight,” Northwestern led 22-16 at halftime. The ‘Cats stuck to their game plan in the first half, as NU’s stout defense made Nebraska the team’s second opponent to be held under 17 points in the first half (Illinois scored 15). The Cornhuskers shot 6-24 (25.0 percent) from the field and 2-11 from three-point range (18.2 percent). Star forward Terran Petteway was 1-7 shooting with four turnovers and just five points.
Offensively, JerShon Cobb gave NU its biggest spark with seven points in just 11 minutes. Cobb committed his second personal foul with 9:20 left in the first half and sat out the rest of the half. Alex Olah added seven points of his own, and Kale Abrahmson and Tre Demps scored four points and three points, respectively.
The offensive variety was a necessity with reigning Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week Drew Crawford struggling. Crawford went 0-4 in the first half with one point and four turnovers. It appeared Crawford was forcing poor shots, as he spent much of the half with ‘Huskers star Terran Petteway at his waist.
Crawford claims he did not feel any pressure to carry the team after winning the national honor. ” It was an honor to get that award, but I try not to pay attention to that stuff,” he said.
Despite Crawford’s woes, Northwestern looked in the driver’s seat at the break. The ‘Cats had its defense working with arguably the season’s highest student-turnout cheering them on.
Saturday’s game was a tale of two halves. In the first half, Nebraska played like the team that lost to UAB and Penn State. In the second half, it played like the team that beat Ohio State, Minnesota and Indiana.
The ‘Huskers opened the first 5:35 of the half on a 12-5 run to take the lead 28-27 at 14:25. Drew Crawford rediscovered some of his game for a few ‘Cats buckets, but other usual contributors such as Olah and Demps went silent.
The momentum continued to shift from the Land of Lincoln to the team from Lincoln, as Sanjay Lumpkin committed his fourth foul at 12:53. Although NU tied the game at 32 at the 10:42 mark on an Abrahamson three, Nebraska went on an immediate 8-0 run.
The ‘Huskers led 40-32, then 42-34 at the 6:57 mark and then 44-36 at 6:03. The magic appeared to be slipping in Evanston.
In similar style to the Purdue game, Northwestern stormed back. From 5:24 to 3:52, a span of 1:32, NU went on an 8-0 run of its own. Crawford drilled two three-pointers and Demps added a lay-up to tie the scored at 44-44.
On the following possession, a Tre Demps jump shot from the foul line rattled out, halting a possible ‘Cats lead.
“This game in the last four minutes, it’s tied up and Tre put up a good look that would have put us up two. He missed it. We got a foul on the rebound,” Collins said after the game.
Olah committed a foul on the rebound, and with Nebraska in the bonus, Walter Pitchford knocked down two foul shots. After a Crawford miss, Pitchford was true from long range (he went 3-3 from three in the second half).
Cobb chipped the lead to 49-46 at 1:53, but a Terran Petteway bomb from NBA three-point range as the shot clock expired gave Nebraska a 52-46 lead with 22 seconds left.
Lumpkin hit a three second later, but it was a little too late for the Wildcats, as Nebraska ended the game on a 9-5 run for a four-point victory.
Saturday was a reminder of reality. Northwestern is a below average Big Ten team right now. The Wildcats have been lucky and clutch enough to pull out a few close games. Things have to go right for the ‘Cats to win, but in life, things do not always go as planned. Saturday’s game is a reminder Northwestern is not going to win every close game.
There are positives to take away. The defense was ferocious again in the first half. Nebraska had just six points in the paint and two fast break points in the half. From 10:56 to 4:24, Nebraska did not score a point. That is right. Not even a free throw. No points for the ‘Huskers for a period of 6:32.
“Our defense held up the whole game. We held them to 53 points and low percentage shooting,” Collins said.
It was the offense that was problematic on Saturday. Crawford had 13 points, but 12 came in the second half. His shooting numbers of 4-13 from the field and 2-6 from three-point range are not up to his level. Cobb scored 14 points, but other than that duo, no ‘Cats were in double figures. Tre Demps noticeably had a poor game for his standards, shooting 2-6 for just five points.
“It’s hard for us to score. That’s not new,” Collins said.
Teams that give up 53 points should win basketball games. NU’s offense is a poor sample size of college basketball. When the team needed to come through Saturday against a bottom tier Big Ten team, Northwestern did not come through.
Nebraska shot 56.5 percent in the second half and 55.6 percent from beyond the arch. When the Cornhuskers lit up the scoreboard, Northwestern had no offensive answer.
If there were any NCAA Tournament hopes for Northwestern, the many have ended with Saturday’s loss to Nebraska. It is easy to forget this team started the season with no expectations. Collins is trying to keep it that way.
“Never, one time, the whole year, have we talked about wins and losses,” he said of the postseason. Although, an NIT bid is likely the current goal.
Northwestern lost to a team it should have beat on Saturday (is that something anyone expected to hear in December?). Now, the ‘Cats need to regroup and find out where to fill up the holes. The defense and Drew Crawford can only do so much against Michigan State.
Why Did the Offense Struggle?
Above is my analysis of the game as a whole. However, this afternoon, I have some critiques of the offense.
Crawford, Cobb and Demps have been hitting outside shots in the clutch like no other trio in the nation. Every time NU needed a big shot during its recent stretch, one of those three guys would dig for a remarkable clutch bucket.
At some point, the whimsical shots were not going to work. Saturday was that day.
Crawford and Demps should not be isolating themselves on every play. In the first half Saturday, Crawford tried to create plays when the openings were not there. Petteway had him on lockdown, but Crawford kept trying to go one-on-one on Nebraska’s star. The result was a series of forced shots and turnovers, not to mention zero field goals.
He also put up a contested three-pointer in the last minute. Despite Drew Crawford being Drew Crawford, NU could have gotten a better shot in a tight game.
Likewise, Demps loves nothing more than to take defenders one-on-one and set up long jump shots. Demps will not make all of these. It is okay for Demps to pass the ball around. He does not have to be the hero on every possession.
Northwestern also struggled against Nebraska’s zone defense both times the ‘Huskers went to it near the end of each half. Collins admitted Northwestern had some “stagnant possessions” and created turnovers went trying to drive against the zone defense. These players are too good to drive into a 2-3 zone or throw errand passes through a zone.
Ball movement is king in college basketball and Northwestern needs to use this simple offensive concept more. If Northwestern continues to go iso on every possession, this offensive will not go anywhere.
From a New York Knicks’ fan to Northwestern fans, iso will not always work.