NU’s late show flickers out

Dave Goldstein

For stretches of Saturday’s matchup with Purdue, the Northwestern men’s basketball team looked good enough to pull off a Big Ten win for the first time in nearly two years.

Unfortunately for NU, those runs came after Purdue had stormed out to an early 19-point lead.

The Wildcats came up short, losing 69-61 in their Big Ten home opener in front of 4,826 fans at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

NU (7-7, 0-2 Big Ten) struggled offensively from the opening tip. The Cats’ first two shots were blocked, and the team didn’t draw iron until Winston Blake’s errant jump shot clanked off the rim nearly three minutes into the game. On the other end of the floor, Purdue forward Rodney Smith was a one-man wrecking crew, scoring 17 points in the game’s first 15 minutes.

At halftime, NU had taken only 21 shots and made just 33 percent, compared with Purdue’s 31 shots and 45 percent shooting. The Boilermakers (10-3, 2-0) dominated the glass, outrebounding NU 22-12, with an 8-1 edge on the offensive boards.

The Cats looked much better following the intermission. Aggressive play by reserve center Aaron Jennings, timely three-pointers by Blake and increased defensive pressure helped NU chip away at Purdue’s lead, eventually cutting it to 58-52. Despite the surge, NU coach Bill Carmody said he was not impressed.

“Purdue went up big, and it was tough for them to keep their focus,” Carmody said. “Every team’s gotta make a run, so I wouldn’t give us too much credit. I’m just disappointed because we didn’t come out aggressively on our home court. That’s bothersome to me.”

But there were positives to be taken from this game for a young Cats team – specifically Jennings, who played well for the second-straight game. Jennings scored 12 second-half points against Ohio State and repeated that feat Saturday against Purdue. Although he shot just 2-for-9 from the field, Jennings made 11 of 12 free throws and was a consistent presence in the paint.

Jennings’ impact was measured in more than just points. He grabbed eight rebounds, dished out four assists, blocked three shots and had two steals.

“Aaron played well at the end of the Ohio State game and he’s played well the last few days at practice,” Carmody said. “Now I want a track record of this type of play instead of getting it just once in a while.”

Another plus for the undersized Cats was the success of their frontcourt tandem, with Jennings playing alongside center Tavaras Hardy. NU has been starting four guards and the 6-foot-7 inch Hardy – a natural power forward – but will have to play bigger lineups in a tough Big Ten conference. Yet both big men saw significant action Saturday, with Hardy playing 28 minutes and Jennings logging 27.

After having a pair of shots blocked early, Hardy recovered and went 4-for-6 from the field, scoring 11 points. He also grabbed six rebounds and blocked two shots.

“I’m really comfortable playing with Tavaras,” Jennings said. “We’ve played together for a couple of years and we play together during the summer. I think it helps us even more on the defensive end.”

But as Carmody pointed out, Jennings and Hardy’s run of inspired play came with NU facing a huge deficit.

“When they’re up 15, (your) shots go down all the time,” Carmody said. “And when it gets down to eight, you find that your shots don’t look the same.”

Carmody said he was disappointed that Purdue was able to take NU out of its offense. Every fruitless possession for the offense meant more pressure on the defense.

But the Cats showed signs of potential, and in the second half they distributed the ball well. Although it proved impossible for NU to win after such a flat start, the second-half run offered hope that things are moving in the right direction.

“I’m more comfortable and I think everybody on this team is getting more and more comfortable with this system,” Jennings said. “I think today if we came out with a little more intensity from the start and made a few more shots early, this would have been a totally different game.”