WildcatReport - Same old, same old: Another blown lead, another close loss for Northwestern
basketball Edit

Same old, same old: Another blown lead, another close loss for Northwestern

Northwestern is now 1-4 in games decided by single digits this season.
Northwestern is now 1-4 in games decided by single digits this season. (AP)

Simply put, Wednesday night’s loss was inexcusable for Northwestern. You can’t lose a home game to a team like Penn State if you have any March aspirations.

Yet that’s exactly what the Wildcats did.

The Nittany Lions outscored Northwestern 29-15 over the final nine-plus minutes to hand the Wildcats a brutal 74-70 loss at Welsh-Ryan Arena. It was the second straight home loss in Big Ten play for the Wildcats, and the second straight time they let a chance to win slip through their fingers.

That’s not something that NCAA tournament teams do.

Once again, it was the way the Wildcats lost that was so frustrating. The game was seemingly theirs for the taking. They had a 10-point lead, at home, against a 6-5 Penn State team with less than 10 minutes to go. They shot an impressive 46% on three-pointers in the game. Boo Buie was electric, finishing with 22 points and hitting five of eight from long distance. The Cats turned the ball over just eight times all night.

Yet they still couldn’t close out the win in as close to a gimme game as you’ll find in the Big Ten. Somehow, some way, Penn State gutted out the road win against a Northwestern team that is more experienced and more talented than they are.

Instead of a Wildcat stepping up down the stretch, it was Penn State’s Seth Lundy. He converted a four-point play with 2:25 left to pull the Lions to within two. Then he nailed what turned out to be the dagger, a tough, contested three from the wing, that gave them the lead for good, 66-63.

Those are the types of plays that this veteran Wildcat team was supposed to make to win tight games this year. They have the players that have blown more than their share of second-half leads the last few years, and lost more than their share of close games. They had to go through those struggles to learn how to win, head coach Chris Collins constantly told us.

But in crunch time on Wednesday night, with every apparent advantage, they wilted, just like they have so many times before. Penn State didn’t.

With the game tied at 63, Nance missed the front end of a one-and-one after he was fouled. After coming up with a big block of Penn State’s John Harrar on the other end, Nance then missed a jumper with 46 seconds left.

Ten seconds later, Lundy hit his dagger, over the outstretched arm of Nance. Then Buie, who had been the best player on the court for most of the night, missed a wild, twisting layup trying to fight through obvious contact.

The Wildcats got one last shot to bail themselves out after a Nance three-pointer cut the lead to 73-70 and Chase Audige stole PSU’s inbound pass with just three seconds left. Audige dribbled to the arc but his desperation shot that would have tied it skipped off the rim. Collins thought he was fouled on the play.

At this point, after so many close losses over the years, you have to wonder about this team’s psyche. They are just 1-4 in games decided by single digits this season, with a veteran-laden team. They lost to Providence by five, Wake Forest by four, Michigan State by six and now Penn State by four. They beat Maryland by six for their lone win.

Is the problem Collins’ late-game strategies? Are the players too soft? Do they lack an alpha? All theories are on the table.

After the game, Collins offered a lot of the same comments he did earlier this season after narrow losses. “We gotta keep fighting,” he said. “We gotta get better.”

Collins was satisfied with his team’s execution during the last few minutes and thought that Northwestern’s shots were better than Penn State’s.

“They hit some incredible shots,” he said.

That begs the question of why the Lions hit them, while his team didn’t.

The same thing happened on Sunday night, albeit against a much better team in No. 10 Michigan State. Trailing by two with 1:15 left, Audige missed an open three-pointer that would have given them the lead. On the other end, after a busted play, Michigan State’s Gabe Brown hit the three that proved to be the game-winner.

You could chalk both of those losses up to bad luck, the whims of the basketball gods. The issue, though, is that it keeps happening to Northwestern, time and time again. Over the last four seasons the Wildcats have won just eight of 31 games decided by six points or fewer. That qualifies as a trend, a program characteristic.

It’s too early in the 2021-22 season to count the Wildcats out quite yet. They’ve played just three of 20 Big Ten games. There is a lot of basketball yet to be played.

But the Big Ten schedule gets a lot tougher, fast. This was a win they needed to have.

“If you want to have a successful season, the teams that do that, they win close games,” said Collins on Wednesday night.

That’s something that his team has repeatedly failed to do.