Improved defense drives Cats to blowout win

Matt Forman

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For the last seven practices, coach Bill Carmody preached one thing: defense.

After Northwestern lost its exhibition season opener 69-62 to Robert Morris (Ill.) College, Carmody knew his team could not allow a team to shoot nearly 50 percent from the floor.

That philosophy paid off.

NU (1-0) played suffocating defense against Central Arkansas (0-1) on Sunday, allowing only 25 percent of the Bears shots to fall, en route to 81-39 win Sunday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“Every day in practice, that’s our focus: defense,” junior forward Jeff Ryan said. “All the coaches say it, and all the players have to believe, defense is going to win us games.”

After Central Arkansas scored the first two points of the game, NU went on a 22-3 run to build a comfortable lead. As the Wildcats’ defense pressured, their offense came around.

“Your defense helps your offense so much,” Carmody said. “When you defend you can score and press and get more possessions. Things just seemed to be in sync.”

NU forced 23 turnovers and allowed 11 field goals. The drastic defensive turnaround was a result of defenders keeping their bodies in front of their men, Carmody said.

“Crazy, right?” he said with a chuckle. “Something simple as that makes a difference, it’s like making shots.”

What the Cats did best defensively, they took advantage of offensively. The Bears could not keep the Cats in front of them and were quickly over the foul limit. NU made 11-of-14 free throw attempts in the first half.

Four Cats scored in double digits. Junior forward Kevin Coble led NU with 15 points and eight rebounds, while freshman Kyle Rowley, sophomore Michael Thompson and Ryan added 10 points apiece.

The Cats led 35-17 at halftime, but much like the first half, they came out sloppily for the second half. Less than four minutes in, the Bears had cut the lead to 13. Carmody called a timeout and told Thompson to take over.

Thompson did just that.

One minute after Carmody called the timeout, Thompson threw a pass into the corner to senior Sterling Williams, who hit a mid-range jump shot. Two possessions later, as the shot clock was winding down, Thompson knocked down a 25-foot 3-pointer.

“I told Mike Thompson to make a couple plays and stop thinking about everybody else so much,” Carmody said. “That got us to relax again offensively.”

Of Thompson’s 10 points and four assists, seven points and two of his assists came in a four-minute span. That sparked a 14-0 run to close the door on Central Arkansas.

While the team focused on defense throughout the week, it wasn’t Carmody’s traditional 1-3-1 zone that caused the Bears difficulty. Instead, the Cats instituted a full-court press that stifled the Bears.

“It sort of kept the game on our terms,” Coble said. “We disrupted their timing and took them out of their comfort zone.”

Ryan said the 42-point victory was a confidence boost for the team, especially because 14 different players got into the game.

For Coble, the team’s work on defense over the last week adds to the confidence factor.

“I don’t want to say it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s validation that our hard work is paying off,” Coble said. “To go out and beat anyone by that amount, regardless of the two teams, that’s a tribute to our work.”

matthewforman2007@u.northwestern.edu

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