Reality hit harder and sooner than anyone expected.
Northwestern lost 68-64 to Illinois State on Sunday — one of the program’s worst non-conference defeats in recent memory.
For context: Illinois State lost its top six scorers from last season, and dropped games against VCU (by 38) and Drexel to open the season.
Three days after losing to Stanford in Palo Alto, Calif., Northwestern exited the locker room and appeared to lack its usual resolve.
And by the time they returned, it must have been somber. The Redbirds opened up an 18-point lead, shooting 52 percent in the face of a lackluster Wildcats defensive effort.
Despite an intense comeback attempt, NU failed to overcome its poor start and fell to 1-2.
“I just don’t think we had enough fight,” Drew Crawford said. “We dug ourselves a big hole. ISU played great in the first half, and we didn’t come out with enough fight to be able to win a game.”
Crawford's 13 points and seven rebounds were hardly enough. Jershon Cobb was the miniature of an uneven performance. NU’s resident combo guard knocked down 11-of-14 from the line but missed eight of his 12 field goal attempts in the loss.
In defeat, there were two surprising stories. Kale Abrahamson entered the game when freshman Nate Taphorn left the game with a minor injury. The sophomore forward – stuck on the bench for the season’s first two games – scored eight points in a sharp and efficient 17 minutes.
“He was ready when his number was called on,” Collins said. “I stuck with him because he was out there fighting.”
Then, embattled guard Tre Demps gave an excellent, well-rounded performance. He dropped 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting and did not commit any turnovers.
Of course, the overall story wasn’t so pretty. NU shot 27 percent in the first half. Dave Sobolewski had three turnovers to only two assists. Alex Olah continued his weak start to the season — adding just two points and two rebounds while battling early foul trouble.
This one, though, devolved quickly. Northwestern allowed just three points in the first five-plus minutes before falling into another drought. The Wildcats went scoreless for a nearly six-minute span, and by that point, Illinois State had staked its first lead.
The Redbirds worked through power forward John Jones and Zach Lofton. Jones successfully challenged the weak NU interior and scored eight of his 11 points in the first half. Lofton, meanwhile, hit a triple that put the Redbirds ahead 31-17 with just more than four minutes remaining in the opening frame.
“They outplayed us in every facet of the first half,” Chris Collins said. “They were quicker to lose balls. Their big guys were having their way inside. They were getting by our guys.”
Down 18 as they retook the floor, NU kept trying to sustain momentum. But an early six-point run was followed by seven the other way. For everything the Wildcats mounted, Illinois State did enough to close out an impressive program victory.
NU strung together a late 14-3 stretch – using a smaller lineup without either center – that brought them within two. But Paris Lee knocked down consecutive free throws, and after a JerShon Cobb jumper, Tony Wills iced the game with two more free throws.
Collins looked visibly dejected from the podium; this will be one long season.