WASHINGTON — If you thought Northwestern was going to try to win in March with defense, then you were probably pretty darn surprised on Thursday night.
One of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten lived up its defensive reputation, but it was the offense that stole the show in Northwestern's 83-61 smackdown of Rutgers in the Big Ten Tournament.
The Wildcats struggled mightily on offense down the stretch of the regular season, a main factor in why the team lost six of its final nine regular-season games. But the regular season is over now, and the Cats started the postseason by blowing the doors off the Verizon Center.
Northwestern shot 60 percent from the field including a jaw-dropping 70 percent in the second half. But it was in the first half where the biggest fireworks came as the Cats rattled off a 31-0 run, breaking the Big Ten record for consecutive points in a game.
Most important were the contributions of Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey, two guys who struggled to find their shots over the regular season's final month and a half. Thursday night, they each scored 16 points as part of a balanced scoring effort.
Heading into this tournament and ahead of the bigger one next week, it looked like the offensive production of Law and Lindsey would be the determining factor in how long Northwestern's March run lasted. If Thursday night is any indication, Cats fans might want to block out the rest of the month.
"Earlier in the year when we were clicking on all cylinders, our two wings were averaging about 30 a game. Scottie was averaging 16. Vic was averaging 14. That was when we were at our best. When we didn't have to put everything on Bryant (McIntosh) to be a scorer, we could just play and use each other," head coach Chris Collins said after Thursday's game.
"If you look at our balance tonight, that's what I love seeing. The two wings both getting 16, (Dererk) Pardon getting 13, McIntosh 13, (Sanjay) Lumpkin getting nine, (Gavin) Skelly and (Nathan) Taphorn and (Isiah) Brown giving us production off the bench.
"When we move the ball, get assists, that's when we're at our best. I think you saw that tonight."
The Cats had been in an offensive funk ever since Lindsey missed four straight games while battling mono in the middle of conference play. He's slowly worked his way back from what Collins has said was three weeks without exercise, but he's only sporadically shown the form he showed during the early part of the season, when he was Northwestern's leading scorer, putting up double-figure totals in every game. Law, too, has struggled down the stretch. He scored just a combined 11 points in three of the final four regular-season games (the fourth, strangely enough, saw him pour in 18 in a win over Michigan).
But Law and Lindsey were back at it Thursday. Lindsey got his 16 points on 12 shots, but Law was particularly efficient, going 4-for-6 from the field and 2-for-3 from 3-point range, hitting both of those 3s during the Cats' 31-0 run.
Getting those two guys back on track is gigantic for this Northwestern team.
"I think I was driving the ball a lot more, getting to the free-throw line," Law said. "I think when I was going through the slump, I settled for a lot of jump shots, been off balance a little bit. Tonight I got off to a good start, attacking the rim the first ball."
You can say, "Oh, it was just Rutgers," but that would be selling the Cats' performance short. Northwestern had its fair share of challenges against Rutgers earlier this season, trailing in the second half of both previous meetings and only winning by four when the two teams clashed on Feb. 18 in Evanston. And Northwestern wasn't the only team to have its hands full with the Scarlet Knights this season. Ask Illinois or Ohio State.
Truly the Cats were just picture-perfect on both ends of the floor Thursday night. Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell called Northwestern "an elite team that was playing at an elite level," adding that his team "got blitzed."
Maryland, Friday's opponent, is obviously a different animal. The same can be said for any team the Cats should have to face the remainder of this tournament and into next week's Big Dance.
But while we knew Northwestern could do it on the defensive end, now we know they're capable of doing something like this.
Look out, rest of college basketball.
"It felt like we were clicking on all cylinders tonight," Law said. "We've been in some tough games the last two games against Michigan and Purdue. Purdue, we couldn't make plays down the stretch. To come out tonight, to be as efficient and effective as we were offensively, on the defensive end, to match Rutgers' physicality on the glass, it was a fun night to play. Everything seemed to be working."