EVANSTON — If nothing else, Tuesday night served as a perfect indication of just how much difference a year has made for Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Last season, the Badgers visited Evanston in the Big Ten opener, and the team that finished national runner-up crushed the Cats, 81-58.
But with many of those Badgers no longer on the team — not to mention the retirement of former head coach Bo Ryan — and the Cats making noticeable progress in attempting to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time, this year's matchup at Welsh-Ryan Arena was a different story, this time Northwestern earning the win by a score of 70-65.
Bryant McIntosh was stellar for the Cats, finishing with 28 points, his third-highest scoring output of the season, and leading them to their 15th win of the season in 18 games.
[MORE BIG TEN: Spartans up to No. 4, Hawkeyes up to No. 16 in latest AP poll]
Northwestern started strong, jumping out to an early lead with efficient shooting right around the basket. McIntosh scored eight points in the game's first four minutes, and the Cats had a nine-point lead at 14-5. But Northwestern's hot shooting slowed, and Wisconsin caught up in a hurry. The Badgers went on a 10-2 run to come within a point, and a Jordan Hill 3-pointer gave them a brief lead around the seven-minute mark. Aaron Falzon hit the Cats' first 3 of the game shortly after, and Sanjay Lumpkin splashed in a triple on a pretty pass from Dererk Pardon.
Northwestern ended the first half ahead by a bucket, 26-24. Both teams shot well from the field: the Cats shooting 45.8 percent and the Badgers shooting 47.8 percent. Those numbers were thanks to a bevy of high-percentage shots, the teams combining for 28 points in the paint, Northwestern alone scoring 18 in the painted area.
The game stayed close, though the Cats led by a modest amount for much of the second half. Bronson Koenig — who went scoreless in the first 20 minutes — hit his second 3 of the second half to tie the game at 42 with 11 minutes to play, and after Northwestern took another three-point lead, a Nigel Hayes bucket and a Zak Showalter 3 gave Wisconsin a two-point edge. But the Cats responded with a 7-0 run to move in front by five around the six-minute mark.
Koenig hit another big triple to slice that deficit to two, but McIntosh responded with a 3-pointer to push it back to five at 55-50, an absolute dagger of a shot. Not long after, McIntosh attempted a pass that went off the rim, but it came right back to him and he turned it into a layup, a somewhat-wacky representation of how well things were going for him in this one. That bucket put Northwestern in front by six, 59-53, with a little more than three minutes to play. That lead got as big as eight but no smaller than five down the stretch. McIntosh continued to put the ball in the basket, at one point scoring 10 of 12 points for the Cats.
[SHOP BIG TEN: Get your Northwestern gear right here]
Northwestern shot 47.8 percent from the field, including a 50-percent mark in the second half. The Cats held a 34-25 rebounding advantage and an 11-4 edge in second-chance points. Northwestern finished with 30 points in the paint.
Wisconsin shot 47.1 percent from the field and was 7-for-21 from 3-point range.
There was a massive free-throw disparity, with the Cats 22-for-34 from the line and the Badgers 10-for-13.
McIntosh added five assists, four rebounds and a steal to his 28 points and was the lone Northwestern player to score double figures.
Hayes had 17 points for the Badgers, and Ethan Happ had 12.
Northwestern improved to 15-3 overall and 3-2 in Big Ten play, while Wisconsin dropped to 9-9 on the season and 1-4 in league play.