Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Lions roar to clutch victory

The Northwestern men’s basketball team lost 73-66 Saturday, but the game wasn’t nearly as close as the score would suggest.

For much of the contest, NU (7-9, 0-4 Big Ten) thoroughly dominated Penn State before 11,913 at the Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa. The Wildcats led by 14 points at two different times in the second half. It seemed for a time that the Nittany Lions would never inch closer than seven points, but a 29-7 second-half run not only closed the gap but buried the Cats as well.

NU coach Bill Carmody would have struggled to imagine a better first half for his team. In their first game since a 31-point thrashing at Michigan State Wednesday, the Cats took advantage of an aggressive Penn State perimeter defense, getting layup after layup on back-door cuts.

Up 38-30 at halftime, the Cats appeared to be in control.

“Everything seemed to click for us,” said Winston Blake, who shot 6-of-7 from the field and led NU with 17 points.

Blake said coaches and players had stressed the importance of pushing the ball up the floor, and that strategy – along with some cold shooting from the Lions (11-3, 2-2) – gave the Cats an edge.

The wisdom of NU’s strategy became apparent with 7:25 left and the teams knotted at 22. Instead of allowing the opposition to make a run, as they did Wednesday against the Spartans, the Cats went on a 16-4 spurt themselves. Blake and Ben Johnson led the way, connecting on backdoor passes and nailing three-pointers.

Johnson, who led the Cats in scoring last season but has struggled at times this year, played one of the best halves of his career, scoring 14 points and ripping down seven boards before intermission.

After weathering an early second-half run and expanding their lead, the Cats – Blake in particular – caught a bad break that may have cost them the game. With NU leading 47-33, Blake committed his third and fourth fouls in a span of five seconds, forcing him to the bench with 16:07 left.

“He has to play 40 minutes for us, not 27,” Carmody said. “He’s our main guy. He creates a lot of chances for us and can really shoot the ball.”

The bad omen sent NU into a tailspin. Behind sharpshooter Joe Crispin, the Lions got hot from the field while the Cats wilted.

Crispin led all scorers with 28 points, sparking Penn State’s comeback as Blake watched from the sideline. Crispin nailed five of 11 shots from behind the three-point line, many of which were from NBA range.

“He came out in the second half with the sole intention of carrying his team on his back,” Blake said. “It was frustrating. I just wanted to be in there.”

While Penn State began its comeback, NU showed its inexperience, turning over the ball and failing to set up the offense. And without Blake in the game, Johnson no longer saw the open looks he had in the first half. He scored only two points in the second half and pulled down just one rebound.

But Johnson wasn’t the Cats’ only problem in the final 20 minutes. They couldn’t defend the perimeter and did not regain their fluidity for the rest of the game. When Penn State turned up the heat, NU turned over the ball – 20 times in all.

“It seemed like our guys couldn’t handle it,” Carmody said. “I think bad fundamentals hurt us down the stretch. If you can dribble the ball well it is easier to handle the pressure. We don’t have enough kids who can dribble the ball.”

As if the turnovers weren’t enough, Crispin further deflated the Cats by drawing Blake’s fifth foul with 3:16 to go. He then hit two free throws to put Penn State up 59-58. That completed the comeback, giving the Lions’ their first advantage since a 9-7 margin early in the game.

The combination of Penn State’s hot shooting and improved defense was too much for NU to handle, leaving Lions coach Jerry Dunn relieved and satisfied.

“We didn’t shoot well in the first half, only 38 percent, but we got back into it defensively,” he said. “We shot better, but more importantly, we made stops.”

The seven-point loss was the Cats’ closest game in the Big Ten this year, and its second loss by fewer than 10 points. Still, NU hasn’t won a Big Ten game in two seasons – its last was at Penn State on Feb. 6, 1999.

“We’re getting to the point where we’re there in the games, and now we just need to pull them out,” Blake said.

Until the Cats can either keep all their starters in the contest or catch a team that shoots as poorly for the game as Penn State did in the first half, it will be difficult to earn that streak-snapping win – especially with Illinois, Purdue and Michigan State coming up on the schedule.

On Saturday, the Cats came close to that elusive win, but still gave the opposition just enough room to make the game-deciding plays.

“Give credit to Penn State for hanging in there,” Carmody said. “We made them make all the good basketball plays that they had to in order to win, and they did.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
Lions roar to clutch victory