EVANSTON — A message to the rest of the Big Ten: Northwestern isn’t a one-trick pony.
Whether or not such a reputation actually existed, Chris Collins was proud his team proved the proverbial “doubters” wrong on Tuesday night when the Cats produced the vast majority of their points in a 70-65 win over Wisconsin from inside the 3-point line.
Thirty points in the paint coupled with 22 free throws made for 52 in those two categories alone, the Cats hitting just four 3-pointers in the win.
“To win a game like that tonight, it was big for our team,” Collins said. “Certainly I know a lot of people don’t think we can win without making 3s, but we can.
“They were really trying to hug the 3-point line, which teams have done and had some success against us. And we told the guys to drive the ball. Hence, we had a lot of points in the paint, we got to the foul line and I thought we did a great job of winning without having to hit a lot of jump shots. We were able a grind-it-out kind of game, so I was really proud of my games.”
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It was certainly a different look for Northwestern, which — particularly while seven-footer Alex Olah has been sidelined with a knee injury — has relied on the long ball to drive its offense. The Cats made at least seven 3s in all but one non-conference game, hitting 10 or more in six non-conference games, making them one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the country when conference play began. And in the conference opener against Nebraska, Northwestern made 10 more triples, furthering that trend.
But then came back-to-back losses to Maryland and Ohio State in which the Cats shot poorly in general but especially from behind the arc, going a combined 8-for-45 on 3-point attempts in those games.
Things got back on track with an 11-for-25 performance against Minnesota, but the 12 3-pointers attempted Tuesday night were a season low and just the second time all year the Cats didn’t try at least 20 shots from 3-point range.
But it didn’t matter. Mainly with Bryant McIntosh driving to the hoop — the sophomore point guard finished with 28 points — the Cats did a ton of damage inside the painted area. It made for a whopping 30 points in the paint and also led to season highs with 22 made free throws and 34 free throws attempted.
The different look worked. And even though Wisconsin is far from the team that finished national runner-up last season, the win might have been Northwestern’s best, resume-wise, of the campaign.
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“I think there’s a lot of chatter that we’re a one-trick pony,” Collins said. “I ignore the chatter, but it’s, ‘If you don’t let them get 3s, they won’t win.’ And so I think for us to play a game like that and have four 3s and them really stay home on our shooters and us be able to get the ball in the paint and drive the ball and get fouled and get the stops we need and play a grind-it-out, hard-nosed kind of game and win, I think it’s good for our growth. And I think it’s big in that respect because I don’t want our guys to feel that way. I don’t want our guys in a game to feel if we miss some shots early, ‘Uh oh, we can’t win because our 3s aren’t going down.’ These teams taking away our 3s, then let’s go to Plan B. Let’s do some other things, let’s get to the basket and let’s play defense and let’s figure out how to try to get a win.”
“That’s what all good teams do, they find a way to win,” McIntosh said. “I think that’s a good takeaway from this game. We’re a good team, and we can realize that just from the fact that we aren’t a one-dimensional team, we can find other ways to win. When we weren’t knocking down 3s, we had to attack the basket. We got them in foul trouble early in the second half, and we took advantage of it.”
The win sent the Cats to 3-2 in Big Ten play, a rarity in program history. It’s the best start to conference play for the Cats since 1968. And while the talk will continue to be whether they can land a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time ever, performances like Tuesday’s make it look a lot more likely.
“Somebody mentioned to me it’s been a little bit of time since a team here was 3-2, so I guess that’s pretty good,” Collins said.
“We have a good thing going. It’s been a really fun team to coach so far.”