Big Ten

Wanna dance? Northwestern's huge signature win at Wisconsin should all but guarantee tournament berth

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USA TODAY

Wanna dance? Northwestern's huge signature win at Wisconsin should all but guarantee tournament berth

It looks like Northwestern should start lacing up its dancing shoes.

It's hard to imagine the Cats won't be going to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever after scoring a signature 66-59 win over the seventh-ranked Wisconsin Badgers on Sunday night in Madison.

The win was by far Northwestern's biggest of the season and the team's first over a team in the top half of the Big Ten standings. It was just the second time the Cats won at the Kohl Center in Madison.

With leading scorer Scottie Lindsey again sitting out, the third straight game the junior guard missed, Northwestern's defense answered the bell, shutting down Ethan Happ, one of the best players in the conference, to such a degree that Wisconsin head coach Greg Gard kept his star sophomore on the bench for a long stretch in the second half. Happ — who entered Sunday's game ranking in the top 10 in the league in numerous statistical categories, including scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage, steals and blocked shots — finished with just nine points and seven rebounds.

Meanwhile, Bryant McIntosh shone for the Cats with Lindsey out of commission. The junior point guard scored 25 points and wasn't too far off from a triple-double with seven rebounds and seven assists. Vic Law and Dererk Pardon each scored 11 points for Northwestern.

Wisconsin was in control early, but as has happened frequently throughout conference play, the Badgers' offensive production fell off a cliff midway through the opening 20 minutes. Wisconsin led 19-12 at one point, but Northwestern cranked up the offense. The Cats reeled off a 16-0 run and outscored the Badgers by a 19-3 margin over the first half's final seven and a half minutes.

The 3-pointers started falling, Northwestern getting two apiece from Law and Nathan Taphorn in the first half, but the Cats' defense contributed just as much to the scoring disparity, with Wisconsin turning the ball over eight times in the opening 20 minutes, surprising for a team that averaged just 11 a game coming in. Northwestern scored nine first-half points off turnovers.

But Northwestern's nine-point halftime lead didn't last long after Wisconsin erased it with a 10-0 run to start the second half. The Cats, despite starting 0-for-9 from the field after halftime, did punch back, scoring eight straight from there to reclaim their advantage, getting a Law 3 and a rim-rocking dunk from Pardon in the process. At one point, Northwestern had outscored Wisconsin 16-6 following the Badgers' 10-point run.

Northwestern matched its nine-point advantage before the teams started trading buckets down the stretch. A Sanjay Lumpkin triple boosted a four-point Cats edge to a seven-point one, only to be answered by a Nigel Hayes bucket, which was answered by a McIntosh basket, keeping the lead at seven with three and a half minutes to play. The Cats' defense stayed on lockdown over the final few minutes, allowing buckets from McIntosh and Lumpkin to stretch the lead to a game-high 10 points with a minute to go. The Badgers made one last push with some timely free throws, slicing the gap down to five after just a handful of seconds, but McIntosh hit four free throws of his own and found Lumpkin for a breakaway dunk to seal the game.

The Cats held the Badgers to 38-percent shooting on the night and forced 12 turnovers, which yielded 16 points. Wisconsin outscored Northwestern in bench points by a 14-4 margin, but with Happ smothered, it was the Cats who owned the paint scoring, 26-12.

The win was monumental for a Northwestern team that now looks all but guaranteed to reach the Big Dance for the first time in program history. Entering the game, the Cats had a fine resume and looked to be in pretty good shape anyway, but finally earning a signature win should clinch things. Prior to Sunday, the Cats' best win of the season came against Dayton. Now they've knocked off a top-10 team on the road.

Not a bad way to stop a two-game slide that featured losses at Purdue and at home against lowly Illinois. Northwestern sits at 19-6 overall and 8-4 in conference play and faces off against a ranked Maryland team on Wednesday in Evanston.

The loss stopped an eight-game winning streak for Wisconsin, and it was just the second time the Badgers have lost since Thanksgiving. They boasts a 21-4 overall record and a 10-2 mark in conference play. Wisconsin's next game comes Thursday at Michigan.

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Northwestern and Illinois’ college football programs are ranked in the top 10 this year.

Kind of.

One esteemed name in the college football ranks has placed Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald atop the list of the all-time greatest college coaches…ranked as players. Illini coach Lovie Smith ranks at No. 10.

Rich Cirminiello, Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, compiled the list and he is an excellent follow on Twitter. He has several other noteworthy lists of interest, including the top college football players who are now coaches in the NFL. Psst…spoiler alert: several local connections are on that particular list as well, including Saints head coach Sean Payton (QB, Eastern Illinois) and Ron Rivera (LB, California).

But back to Coach Fitz, who bleeds purple and has emphatically put the NU football program on the map since the mid-90s. He was a two-time All-American in addition to receiving consecutive Bronco Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors as a linebacker (1995-96). He helped guide the Wildcats to the ’96 Rose Bowl. Since becoming the team’s head coach in 2006, he has led the program to nine bowl games (four wins).

We all know Lovie Smith’s coaching legacy with the Bears and his rebuilding of the Illinois football program, but did you know how much he dominated as a college player? He played for Tulsa from 1976-79, racking up 367 career tackles primarily as a safety. He was a three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference award winner and earned a second-team All-America mention in 1978. He was also named MVC Newcomer of the Year after he tallied 90 tackles as a freshman.

[MORE: Lovie Smith, Mike Tirico discuss systemic racism 

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who passed for over 11,000 yards in seven seasons as a Chicago Bear, ranked No. 2 on Cirminiello’s list. In a follow-up tweet, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who dominated as a wide receiver at NIU and at nearby Kaneland High School, came in at No. 20. Western Michigan’s Tim Lester —a star player at Wheaton Warrenville South HS— is in at No. 7.

Who said that the Land of Lincoln didn’t have top college football talent?

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Professional, collegiate and prep sports have been on hold in Illinois since mid-March but it looks like there may be more light at the end of the tunnel. This time, in Evanston.

Northwestern University announced Thursday that a phased reopening of the athletic department, in tandem with NU’s overall policy for a return to campus, will include student athlete workouts on Monday June 22.

The relaunch of athletics at Northwestern during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as the state of Illinois is progressing in its own planned reopening, as dictated by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The sports medicine staff, athletic trainers and student-athletes with post-injury needs were welcomed back earlier this month and other select groups will be admitted back to campus next week.

Athletes will be required to complete a full physical upon arrival in Evanston on June 22. They will be screened before entering on-site facilities by means of a wellness check and a no-touch temperature scan.

Facility access will be managed through one entrance and exit. Locker facilities and lounges will remain closed, though, along with dining centers.

[MORE: Shortened NFL preseason puts big group of players at a disadvantage]

The Wildcats football team, along with both the men’s and women’s basketball programs, are penciled in to begin those voluntary workouts a week from Monday. Each unit should have plenty of motivation once they hit the playing surface.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company are eager to put last year’s 3-9 mark behind them. On the hardwood, Chris Collins’ group needs a quick bounce-back after an 8-23 mark last season while the women’s team, under the tutelage of Big Ten Coach of the Year Joe McKeown, are looking to build off a stellar 2019-20 campaign. They won the their first conference championship since 1989-90 and boasted a school record 26 wins.

 

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