Men’s Basketball: March Madness: Northwestern’s dream season ends after a resilient second-half comeback falls just short


Angeli Mittal/Daily Senior Staffer

Senior guard Boo Buie drives past UCLA senior guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. Buie led the Wildcats in scoring in Northwestern’s second-round defeat Saturday, recording 18 points, four rebounds and four assists.

Aayushya Agarwal, Senior Staffer

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Northwestern (22-12, 12-8 Big Ten) took the court against UCLA (31-5, 18-2 Pac-12) in search of its first-ever appearance in the Sweet Sixteen on Saturday. 

The Wildcats, coming off an impressive offensive performance in their first-round victory against Boise State, faced a tall task against the Bruins –– one of the top defenses in the nation. Coming back all the way from 14 points down to tie the game midway through the second half, NU ultimately ran out of steam in the final minutes and suffered a 68-63 loss to end the season.

For the first half of the contest, it seemed as though the Cats were on their way to a convincing loss –– its second one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament. But, Saturday’s contest embodied the resiliency NU has had all season and its ability to come back when on the ropes. 

“I wasn’t surprised with the way we played in the second half because that’s what our team has been (doing) all year long,” coach Chris Collins said. “We have a fighter’s spirit. We go to the next play. If we get knocked down, we keep fighting, we keep battling. I could not have been prouder of my guys. As a coach, all you ever really ask is for your guys to leave it on the floor and give everything they have, emotionally, physically, their communication. We did all that.” 

Throughout the first half, the Cats were forced to play catch-up. Junior center Matthew Nicholson’s dunk tied the game at 5-5 in NU’s third possession, but after UCLA forward Adem Bona responded with his own dunk, the Cats faced a deficit for the rest of the half. Through multiple three-minute scoring droughts in the first 10 minutes of the contest, NU searched for scoring as it faced difficulties in stopping the Bruins’ guards on the defensive end. Redshirt senior guard Chase Audige’s excellent ability to set up his teammates ensured the Cats continued to tick the scoreboard when UCLA trapped both him and senior guard Boo Buie. Audige set up junior guard Ty Berry for a three and freshman forward Nick Martinelli for a running reverse layup to break both scoring droughts. By the intermission, Audige had a game-high six assists.

While Audige set up his teammates well, both he and Buie struggled to score over the course of the first half. As UCLA was trapping full-court and applying pressure on both guards’ driving attempts, the pair was forced to take contested attempts deep in the shot clock. The Cats’ All-Big Ten duo combined to shoot 1-for-8 in the first half, with Buie recording 5 points and Audige 0 points. The duo’s inability to get it going in the first half meant the team found it difficult to score beyond the arc, shooting at a 2-for-9 clip by the intermission.

Yet, the Cats were able to find other avenues of offense. Nicholson wreaked havoc for the Bruins frontcourt all night long, providing a much-needed spark for NU’s offense. He took advantage of the Bruins’ double-teams on Buie and Audige, cutting inside the paint for interior opportunities. When the Bruins went on a 12-2 run late in the first half, and the Cats saw their deficit grow as large as 13, Nicholson scored NU’s next six points on multiple dunks and a layup. Nicholson had a career-high 17 points and added 9 rebounds in the Cats’ defeat.

After Audige’s first bucket of the night –– a pullup three –– in the second half, he did not look back. The Naismith Defensive Player of the Year Finalist was unstoppable in a stretch. He scored 10 of NU’s 12 points and cut the team’s deficit to two with 12 minutes to play. After failing to record any points in the first half, Audige compensated in the second half, shooting 6-for-13 from the field and adding 16 points.

“We started out really, really cold,” Audige said. “We were trying to hang our hat on defense and try to get as many stops. Coming into the second half, we had to lay everything on the line. We knew it was going to be a war throughout.” 

Meanwhile, Buie found his groove toward the end of the second half. When his team needed him the most, he answered the bell, canning multiple pull-up threes. The senior guard was able to get past opposing UCLA guards and record multiple driving layups. Down the stretch, Buie’s ability to continue ticking the scoreboard in the final minutes ensured NU remained within striking distance. Similarly to Audige, Buie performed much better offensively in the second half, recording 13 points.

After combining for five first-half points, the Cats starting guard duo finished with 34.

“In the second half, coach made an adjustment,” Buie said. “(UCLA) started switching, and we were getting the isos. It was a little bit (easier) to get downhill for the both of us. We got to our spots, and our team trusted us.” 

While the Cats mitigated their offensive woes in the second half, their inability to stop UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. plagued them all night long. The Bruins star continuously exchanged baskets with NU at pivotal moments. Jaquez led all scorers with 24 points, shooting 11-for-19 from the field. Because the Cats were unable to stop him, the team surrendered 22 UCLA field goals on 44 attempts, which ultimately ended NU’s season.

The Cats achieved much more than the many experts’ “bottom of the Big Ten” predictions and defied all odds. As Collins reflected back on the finished season, he had nothing but praise for his team. 

“Just heartbroken,” Collins said. “I told these guys in the locker room, I’ve never had more fun coaching. These guys, they’ve shown up every day. They allowed me to coach ’em.”

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Twitter: @aayushyagarwal7

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