Men’s Basketball: Supporting cast and stifling defense lead the way in 65-53 win over Rutgers in regular season finale


Daily file photo by Katie Chen

Junior center Matthew Nicholson hangs on the rim after a major slam. Nicholson finished with 10 points, six rebounds and four blocks in the win over Rutgers 65-53.

Lawrence Price, Senior Staffer

After scoring 65 or fewer points in its last three contests, the last opponent Northwestern needed to face before postseason play was the Big Ten’s top-scoring defense in Rutgers.

This was especially true on the Big Ten’s last day of regular season ball, as the Wildcats’ victory meant a No. 2 seed in the conference tournament — the highest in program history. A loss, though, would seed NU at No. 9.

Luckily, the Cats’ (21-10, 12-8 Big Ten) defense and supporting cast stepped up in the low scoring contest, as NU defeated Rutgers (18-13, 10-10 Big Ten) 65-53, lifting NU to its highest Big Ten Tournament seed in program history. 

“It’s a great testament to our guys,” coach Chris Collins said. “Six road wins for us this year was to me an incredible feat, because it’s so hard to play on the road.” 

The great saying “defense wins championships” has been NU’s money maker all season, flexing the conference’s third-best scoring defense, a strong leg up from last year’s 11th place position. With the Scarlet Knights cherishing the same motto this season, both teams struggled to find the bottom of the basket in the first half.

While the Cats underwent nearly a seven minute scoring drought, Rutgers’ inaccuracy from the field loomed large as well. NU’s successful perimeter defense limited the Scarlet Knights to two-of-eight shooting behind the arc, not to mention the high amount of jumpers contested. 

Most of Rutgers’ points were generated in the paint because of the Cats’ quick ability to trap, closeout, switch and more, intensely flying around the court. This has proven to be a dangerous tactic against many high-scoring offenses in the Big Ten, and was even greater Sunday versus the conference’s 10th-best scoring offense.

“Both teams defensively were making it real hard on the other team,” Collins said. “I looked at my staff a couple times and said ‘I don’t know what we can do to get a clean shot.’” 

Although no Wildcats’ player had double digit points by the break, as sophomore guard Brooks Barnhizer led the way with eight, the Scarlet Knights’ highest scoring player had just six points. The slugfest’s halftime score was only 25-21. 

Barnhizer’s eight point boost was critical for the Cats because of the fits senior guard Boo Buie and senior redshirt guard Chase Audige were facing from the field. With the Big Ten’s first, third and fourth-best steals per game players in Caleb McConnell, Cam Spencer and Paul Mulcahy, respectively, Rutgers could throw multiple different defenders at the combo.

Buie was scoreless in the first 20-minutes, while Audige had three points. However, Barnhizer continued to solidify himself as a pertinent third scoring option in the second half, dropping eight more points. On top of that, the Indiana native was joined by junior center Matthew Nicholson and junior guard Ty Berry in carrying the load. Collins emphasized the importance of Barnhizer’s play and buckets when the team needed them, along with Nicholson’s and Berry’s plays. 

“Ty Berry, you know, his ability to give us double figures when we really didn’t have our guards going,” coach Collins said. “Nicholson was great playing against Cliff (Omoruyi), you know, one of the big guys. I thought those guys were battling all night long.”

For the first ten minutes of the second 20-minute block, the trio of Barnhizer, Berry and Nicholson scored all of NU’s points, including a 9-0 run. This chunk of points extended the Cats’ lead from three to 12 points, the biggest of the game at that point, and put the game out of reach for Rutgers.

On top of Barnhizer’s 16 points and 10 rebounds — his fifth-straight game in the double digits — Berry finished with 12 and Nicholson collected 10 points, along with six rebounds and four blocks. 

“I really credit our supporting case,” coach Collins said. “Our guards have been great all year long, and Steve (Pikiell) is such a good coach he did a great job kind of getting the ball out of Boo and Chase’s hands, and we knew they were going to do that.”

These contributions were enough for the Cats to build a comfortable lead, and more importantly, give the dynamic duo of Buie and Audige some time to warm up before putting the nail in the coffin.

Although Audige had a quieter night, picking up five points from the charity stripe in the game’s last ten minutes, Buie caught on fire, dropping all 14 points in the same time span. Whether it be an and-one layup or deep threes behind the arc, Buie was hard to stop, leading to the Cats’ 12-point victory.

Even though NU wasn’t able to climb past the 65 points mark, the defense’s sound effort was a major plus. And in addition to the offensive play outside Buie and Audige, the Cats looked solid in multiple mandatory areas for success in the postseason.

“We didn’t want to go into the postseason with four straight losses,” coach Collins said. “We did enough against the press, we missed some free throws, we had a couple turnovers, but fortunately we never let the crowd get into it in the last four minutes.”

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