Northwestern leaves behind 2020-21 “ghost town,” rings in 2021-22 with blowout of Eastern Illinois


Gabe Bider/Daily Senior Staffer

Boo Buie dribbles the basketball. Buie led both teams with 17 points in Northwestern’s season-opening win over Eastern Illinois.

Patrick Andres, Senior Staffer

The most noteworthy number in Northwestern’s season opener wasn’t its 16 steals, nor was it junior guard Boo Buie’s game-high 17 points.

It was 2,753 — the number of fans who filed into Welsh-Ryan Arena to watch the Wildcats (1-0) tip off the 2021-22 campaign with a convincing 80-56 win over Eastern Illinois (0-1). That was 2,753 more than the number of fans who watched NU at home in the entire 2020-21 season, when COVID-19 forced the Cats to play their 24-game season in a vacant arena.

“I don’t think people understood, even though we were really enjoying playing (last year) … it was really weird when the buildings were completely empty other than the two teams,” coach Chris Collins said. “To have a little energy, to have music playing, … to actually have people here was cool.”

Buie led the way in a team effort, pulling down three rebounds, dishing out six assists and racking up a career-high five steals in the victory. Sophomore guard Ty Berry and senior forward Pete Nance added 13 points apiece, and nine players in all saw at least 10 minutes of game action for NU.

The Cats won the first opening jump in front of fans at Welsh-Ryan since March 7, 2020, although Nance missed NU’s first field goal attempt. Forward Jermaine Hamlin’s layup and guard Henry Abraham’s three-pointer staked the Panthers to an early 5-0 lead, but Berry, Buie and Nance responded by sinking their first baskets. The Cats never trailed after freshman guard Casey Simmons’s pair of free throws put them up 8-7 with 16:12 left in the first half.

“Everyone who came out tonight, we’re super thankful,” Buie said. “Hearing the crowd back in the gym, it’s not like a ghost town. Having fans back is definitely a plus to start the season.”

While Buie, Berry, Nance and junior forward Robbie Beran — who amassed nine points on just three field goal attempts — flexed their veteran prowess, NU’s newcomers left their fingerprints all over the opener.

Simmons went a perfect 4-4 from the line, helping him salvage six points from a 1-5 shooting night. Freshman guard Julian Roper II added six points, four rebounds and three steals.

Graduate forward Elyjah Williams made an instant impact in his first game after transferring from Fairleigh Dickinson. The Evanston Township High School alumnus scored nine points, including seven in the second half. His second-chance layup with 14:35 left, which was followed by a three-pointer a minute later, pushed the Cats’ lead to 55-34 — the first time it eclipsed 20 points.

“Being from Evanston, and being able to come here and finally play in front of my hometown, it’s very exciting,” Williams said.

NU played stout defense throughout, forcing Eastern Illinois into 19 turnovers. The Cats’ 16 steals marked their highest total since December 20, 2007, when NU recorded 18 against Howard. Beran finished with five steals, more than doubling his previous career-high of two against Iowa in 2020 and Penn State in 2021.

“Having hot hands on all my defensive possessions just allowed me to get tips,” Buie said. “When a big man turns his back to you, as a little point guard, you can get in there and be fortunate enough to make the steal.”

Buie credited the presence of players’ families in the arena — another change from 2020-21 — with generating excitement, while Collins looked ahead to a suddenly more familiar in-arena experience.

“Our guys really enjoyed it, playing back in front of our fans,” Collins said. “We’re looking forward to doing it again on Friday night (against High Point).”

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