Maryland's decisive victory at Welsh-Ryan already had naysayers calling for Bill Carmody's head. Another loss to UIC on Saturday made a big, ugly blemish on NU's March aspirations. The players looked surprisingly flat and uninspired, particularly bad indicators from a senior-laden team. Up next was Baylor—which days ago had beaten formidable Kentucky by double digits on the road—and all signs were pointing painfully downward as the Wildcats landed in Waco.
So if you had told me Northwestern would not only defeat its Big 12 opponent, but hold an 18-point lead midway through the second half, I'd have told you to go teach Luka Mirkovic how to dribble.
Though neither team was spectacular Tuesday night, the Wildcats made a statement with their 74-70 win, addressing many of the problems that have plagued their young season. NU responded impressively after a week during which it looked anything but tournament-caliber, much less a Big Ten-quality group. That adjustment began with a visible shift in attitude, a team-wide refusal to quit that paid off with a huge victory.
From the get-go, the Wildcats looked assertive, poised and well-prepared. Certainly, they had a chip on their shoulder after Baylor ran them out of Welsh-Ryan by nearly 30 points last season. Nightmares of alley-oops and Quincys flying through the air lingered in the minds of many, reminders of a game that could have pushed their postseason résumé over the top.
Instead of reliving history, Northwestern frustrated Baylor, playing physically, winning loose balls, and executing Carmody's gameplan to perfection. They moved the ball well and found open looks against Scott Drew's zone. The Cats effectively managed its possessions, took good shots and defended well enough for a 35-32 lead at halftime. Moreover, NU showed a competitive spark it had lacked thus far, particularly in the last two losses. Dave Sobolewski jawed with Baylor's oft-irritating Pierre Jackson all game, admirably competing with one of the country's best guards.
Shortly after—despite his nice-guy reputation—Drew Crawford received a technical foul for hanging on the rim after an emphatic dunk. After Jared Swopshire was flagrantly brought to the ground by Ricardo Gathers, teammates sprinted to his defense showing they were unwilling to roll over. The Wildcats took no grief from Baylor, battled through questionable foul calls and pulled out the type of close, edge-of-your-seat win they'll need to repeat if they hope to make any noise in a loaded Big Ten. The best teams are defined by how they handle adversity, and Northwestern certainly passed the eye test.
Not to say this win wasn't ugly; points were hard-fought, and Baylor made the Wildcats work for every one of them, particularly in the last five minutes. After Sobolewski left with his fourth foul, the Bears amped up the pressure, forced turnovers and made things awfully uncomfortable for Northwestern and its fans. NU's lack of a true backup point guard nearly did them in, with secondary ball-handler Reggie Hearn fouling out and Carmody reluctant to use backup Tre Demps.
The Cats also missed several free throws down that final stretch, and their troubles were made painfully apparent as Baylor tried to climb back by purposely fouling free-throw challenged Alex Olah. Scott Drew's modified hack-a-Shaq gambit nearly worked, with his team drawing within three in the final minute and making everyone in purple sweat profusely.
The contest finished much closer than it should have. But the bottom line was, it was enough to win. Enough to get the haters off Carmody's back, for now.
Enough to draw scrutiny off Crawford, who turned in 19 points in spite of recent struggles, and enough to call some attention away from Northwestern's serious lack of bench depth, as four starters played over 33 minutes. Heck, the below-average rebounding Wildcats managed to win the glass 37-24, apocalypse jokes aside.
In the end, toughness and hustle won the day; the formula for many an upset and one the Wildcats must become familiar with to be part of the Big Ten conversation. With perennially talented Butler looming on Saturday night, the Cats have little time to catch their breath.
But for now, they must take their newfound frame of mind and run with it. After all, it's only December.
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