Northwestern struggled again to score points Saturday, but as Chris Collins reminded us after the game, that's not new.
Despite the much-ballyhooed turnaround Collins has engineered up in Evanston, the Wildcats' offense remains painful to watch, that is it's painful to watch when there's something to watch. The Cats might sit in the top half of the Big Ten standings — a remarkable achievement for Collins in his first year helming a program that's never reached the NCAA tournament — but they rank dead last in the conference in scoring offense, field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage. The bottom line is that for all the winning of late, nothing's changed the fact that Northwestern has a lot of trouble putting points on the board.
And that was again the case Saturday in a 53-49 loss to Nebraska at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The defense was there once more, as it has been ever since the start of the turnaround. The Huskers shot just 25 percent from the field in the first half, scored just 53 points in the game. But in the clutch, they made shots. Northwestern couldn't. And that was the difference.
"We held them to 53 points, low percentage shooting," Collins said after the game. "Those guys hit big shots. So it's not so much about what we didn't do other than the fact that obviously it's hard for us to score. That's not new. It's been that way all year. We're working through it. That's why when we do have an opportunity around the basket to finish or when we do have open looks or we do go to the free-throw line we have to make those, because our margin for error is so slim. It's very hard to expect yourself to win games when you score 49 points."
The Cats had a few moments of offensive ability, highlighted by an eight-point run to tie the game at 44 with three minutes and 10 seconds left in the game. But after a pair of Nebraska free throws, Walter Pitchford connected on a huge 3-pointer that seemed to nearly kill off Northwestern. JerShon Cobb hit a couple free throws to get the Cats back within three, but Huskers star scorer Terran Petteway splashed home a deep 3-pointer with the shot clock about to expire inside the game's final minute to seal the game. Northwestern's Sanjay Lumpkin answered with a 3-pointer of his own, but there wasn't enough time left for a Wildcat comeback.
As the Huskers showed their ability to connect on huge shots with the game on the line, the offensive firepower just wasn't there for Northwestern. Even the usual contributors struggled. Drew Crawford scored just 13 points, only one of which came in the first half, and Tre Demps had just five off the bench. Collins said he knew Nebraska was planning to key on Crawford, just as the Huskers had on Michigan sharp shooter Nik Stauskas in their previous game, but the inability of any other Wildcats to step up and make shots made the Huskers' defensive plan an effective one.
"I knew coming into the game, this team had played the other night and they did the same thing to Stauskas," Collins said. "And Michigan's guys made shots. (Zak) Irvin hit a bunch of threes, and (Caris) LeVert hit a bunch of threes and (Derrick) Walton. And I knew coming into this game they were going to do something similar with Drew, and we were going to have to loosen that up with some guys making some shots.
"I thought we got some good shots, we didn't knock them down."