EVANSTON-Northwestern downed Eastern Illinois 72-55 in the season opener to give head coach Chris Collins his first career victory.
Here are our rapid reactions:
Did you see that? Drew Crawford's first-half block on Alex Austin. Four minutes in, the Wildcats were playing sloppy basketball, and Austin stole a pass from Crawford. He sprinted downcourt and went in for a left-handed layup. Crawford didn't give up on the play, and even though he was almost at the three-point line when Austin took off, he still swooped in and pounded the shot straight downward like a volleyball spike.
Offensive player of the game: Crawford. Much like last year, he came out firing from the perimeter. The senior's 5-for-7 shooting from downtown led him to a game-high 25 points, the most he had scored in a game since the 2012 NIT. He kept finding his sweet spot in the corners and knocked down jumper after jumper. Still, he found opportunities to drive the lane as well. He also added two offensive boards out of his 11 total.
Defensive player of the game: JerShon Cobb. He'll probably be in this spot many more times this season, so it's fitting that he opened the season as the best defender on the floor. With the new hand-checking rules in full effect, Cobb did a great job of bodying guys up on the perimeter and keeping them out of the lane. He was also the first to hit the floor on countless occasions, leading an extremely hard-nosed defensive effort.
Turning point: Sanjay Lumpkin's three-pointer with 8:55 to go. The Wildcats built an 18-point lead with 8:03 left in the first half, but the Panthers whittled it down to 32-28 by halftime. In the second half, the NU lead hovered around 10, and Eastern Illinois wouldn't go away. That was until Dave Sobolewski hit two free throws, the Panthers missed a jumper, and Lumpkin knocked down the three on the other end. EIU wouldn't come within single digits after that.
Atmosphere: Welsh-Ryan got louder during pre-game introductions than it did for a lot of last season's biggest games. On both ends of the court, the student sections were filled to capacity. That could've been the excitement for the new season, but it also could've been the free pizza and t-shirts. While it was far from a sellout, the remainder of the gym filled up pretty well, and it made for an impressive turnout for Collins' debut.
Super sub: Nate Taphorn. He looked much more poised on the floor than you'd expect of a true freshman in his first regular season game. He hit just 1-of-4 shots from the floor, but he found open spots, and his stroke looked smooth. Taphorn didn't turn the ball over a single time, and he attacked the glass as well, pulling down four rebounds.
Stat of the game: 10 Northwestern three-pointers. It's no surprise that this team is relying on perimeter shooting like it did under Bill Carmody, but the way the Wildcats are getting open is much different. Rather than ball screens and back cuts, they found open space along the perimeter by driving to the basket, drawing defenders and kicking out to open shooters. On the other side, Eastern Illinois shot just 2-for-18 from three-point range. Honorable mention: 49 combined fouls.