Men’s Basketball: Early 3-point shooting paves the way for the Wildcats 62-57 victory on Saturday

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(Joshua Hoffman, the Daily Northwestern). A.J. Turner shoots a three. Northwestern shot particularly well from beyond the arc Saturday.

Andrew Golden, Sports Editor

During Chris Collins’ tenure at Northwestern, offense has never been the team’s strong suit — and this season has been no different. The Wildcats are ranked last in the Big Ten in points per game and tenth in the conference in 3-point percentage.

In search of its first conference win of the season, NU (6-9, 1-4 Big Ten) make the shots from long distance in the first half to build a sizeable lead. But the Cats’ three point shooting woes in the second half proved just how crucial three-point shooting is for the team’s success.

Despite being a team that has struggled to shoot from behind the arc for most of the season, NU shot the ball with the confidence of a team ranked at the top of the Big Ten in shooting.

“We didn’t really do anything different in terms of preparation,” sophomore forward Miller Kopp said. “We just stick to our routines and have confidence in our habits, not hope.”

Coming into Saturday’s contest, the Cats still ranked 277th out of 350 teams in the country and was percentage points away from being lower. While it certainly hasn’t been the team’s calling card, when NU finds success from behind the arc, it results in better performances.

The Cats have plenty of capable shooters to choose from at forward, ranging from sophomore Miller Kopp to senior A.J. Turner to freshman Robbie Beran. But the problem has been consistency— in the Cats’ five wins coming into Saturday, the team has shot 35.0 percent from behind the arc, but in the team’s losses, NU has finished with a dismal 28.7 percent from three.

In the team’s three closest losses this season, its three-point shooting has kept them in the game twice. Against potential tournament teams Michigan State and DePaul, the Cats shot 42.9 percent and 34.6 respectively, losing by five both times.

Even NU’s ability to make the threes from half-to-half was a vital part in Saturday’s win. Early on, Nebraska failed to run the Cats off the three-point line and to close out, allowing them to get open shot after open shot.

“We were closing out short,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You gotta run this team off the line, even though they haven’t shot it great to this point in the season. We knew they were all capable shooters.”

In the first 20 minutes, Beran, Kopp, Turner and graduate transfer guard Pat Spencer hit two threes a piece en route to a 8-for-14 first half from three.

The result? A 15-point lead at halftime.

But the second half was a different story. The Cornhuskers came out with a sense of urgency in the second half, creating deflections and getting NU out of a rhythm offensively.

Despite essentially taking as many attempts as the first half, the Cats went 2-for-15 and didn’t make a three-pointer in the final 10:46 of the game.

The result? Nebraska outscored NU 30-20 and almost made a late-game comeback before the Cats sealed the deal late.

Despite not seeing them fall late in the game, NU continued to attack from behind the arc. If the Cats are going to compete down the stretch against the competitive Big Ten, they will have to hit threes at a high clip then they currently are.

And they have the confidence to do so.

“One thing coach does a phenomenal job of instilling confidence in us,” Beran said. “Sometimes, they don’t fall in… but because (Collins) has the confidence it’s going in. I have the confidence (Kopp)’s shot is going in and everyone’s shot is going in.”

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Twitter: @andrewcgolden

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