Nate Taphorn never wavered. He showed poise, and even better, he made the right decision.
It was true eight months ago, when Taphorn remained loyal to the Northwestern program after Bill Carmody’s dismissal. It was true tonight, when the freshman scored 10 points in an efficient collegiate debut.
“I was messing with him before the game,” said Drew Crawford. “I said ‘You’re not nervous, Tap. You’re not nervous.’”
Behind Taphorn, Crawford and solid supporting efforts, NU held off Lewis 57-46 in an exhibition at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Wildcats overcame an inconsistent offensive showing, taking an 18-point lead midway through the second half — one that they never relinquished.
“I was pleased with our defense and I thought our energy was great,” Chris Collins said. “Offensively, to me, it’s not very different than any other team I’ve been a part of — the first time you play in front of fans.”
In that area, Taphorn helped to stabilize the Wildcats. He entered the game to replace Crawford–who had two first-half fouls–and calmly knocked down consecutive triples. Still, NU shot just 32 percent in the opening frame, using their defensive willpower to maintain a 10-point lead.
Redshirt senior Nikola Cerina played a major role in that defensive showing, grabbing eight rebounds in his first seven minutes. He added some excellent plays on help defense, with Collins labeling him an “unsung hero.”
NU maintained impressive energy to start the second half. Sanjay Lumpkin scored consecutive baskets before Taphorn made four straight free throws to give the Wildcats a 46-28 lead.
Lewis, however, stuck to its experience. In recent games, the Flyers beat Loyola and nearly edged DePaul. So when guard Jeff Jarosz sparked Lewis to a 15-2 run, Northwestern’s veterans responded.
Crawford scored all of his 13 points in the second half, including a triple that stretched the lead to nine with 1:36 remaining. After his quiet first half, Collins had intervened.
“I thought Drew settled down,” Collins said. “I said: ‘Just relax. Take a couple of deep breaths.’ Then he got into the paint.”
Despite the seemingly unimpressive outcome, Collins took solace in the fact that NU retained its energy. The exhibition setting provided an opportunity for Crawford’s return — one in which the Wildcats fought their way to victory.
“Something Coach Collins brought from day one is a whole lot of energy,” Crawford said. “That’s something he’s instilled in us as a team and that we’ve embraced.”
Jershon Cobb also returned from his yearlong suspension and scored 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting in an uneven performance. He did make a crucial layup to the end the first half.
“I had a hard time sleeping last night, I was so excited for this game,” Cobb said.
The nice stories failed to obscure some overall weaknesses. Sophomore center Alex Olah disappeared after a promising start. Tre Demps missed all seven of his shots, looking wild and uncomfortable once again. And Dave Sobolewski–the team’s only true point guard–anchored an offense that tallied a miserable eight assists to 12 turnovers.
That, they will hope to fix before the regular season.
Northwestern returns to action on Saturday, when the Wildcats take on Eastern Illinois in the regular season opener.