EVANSTON-Northwestern responded to a disappointing season-opening loss to Merrimack with an impressive 72-63 bounce-back win against a seasoned and physical Providence team on Wednesday night at Welah-Ryan Arena.
NU came into the game as a nine-point underdog, but head coach Chris Collins flipped the game on its head with a zone defense that flustered the Friars.
“I knew we were going to play much better, play hard, play with a lot of fight,” said Collins after the game.
The Wildcats did just that.
Ryan Young, who finished with 16 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists, led Northwestern in scoring, while Anthony Gaines (14 points), Miller Kopp (12) and Pat Spencer (11) all scored in double figures.
Alpha Diallo scored 15 points and David Duke 14 to lead Providence.
Northwestern came out in a 2-2-1 zone defense that surprised Providence, who started the game 0-for-9 from the field. Anthony Gaines, rebounding from a two-point effort in the opener, led the way from the start, with five points, three assists, two rebounds and a steal in the opening 10 minutes of the game to give the Wildcats a 17-15 lead.
The final 10 minutes of the opening half saw Miller Kopp and Robbie Beran push the Wildcats lead with four of the team’s five three-pointers throughout that stretch. Providence, shooting an abysmal 28.6% from the floor in the first half, only stayed in the game due to 12 offensive rebounds that came off of NUs inability to rebound in their zone, which later morphed to a 1-3-1. Miller Kopp, with 10 points and four rebounds, led the Wildcats into the half with a 40-29 edge.
Northwestern started the second half strong, with a 10-2 run lead by Pat Spencer and Anthony Gaines three-pointers, and increased their lead to 20. But the Friars responded by going into a press and 3-2 zone that halted NU’s offense, which turned the ball over five times and didn’t score in a five-minute span.
Young remedied the drought with five straight points to give the Wildcats their largest lead of the night, 55-35. But just when you thought the game was getting out of hand, Providence’s full-court press got them right back into the game. Northwestern had trouble against the press, as their 20-point lead was cut down to three in a 10-minute span.
Young kept kept the Wildcats afloat during that span, providing five points in key possessions as NU clung to a 62-59 lead with 2:16 left in the game.
Luckily for the Wildcats, Providence could not capitalize further, missing open shots from beyond the arc and at the rim. NU sealed the game with Pat Spencer making four of the teams six free throws down the stretch.
Here are our takeaways from an emphatic Gavitt Games win that evened Northwestern’s record at 1-1:
The zone defense can be an answer, but rebounding is a major flaw: After the tough loss to Merrimack, Collins needed an answer to his young team’s defensive woes, especially with a game against a physical, athletic Providence squad whom Collins felt would give his team’s problems one-on-one.
So Collins implemented a zone defense that caused Providence to make mistakes in their passing, rather than the Wildcats making mistakes in the pick-and-roll game that Collins feared. Northwestern had seven steals against the Friars, compared to just one against Merrimack.
However, what allowed Providence to stay in the game was their 20 offensive rebounds. If the Friars shot any better than 31% (22 of 72), this game could have had a different ending. If Collins chooses to stick with a zone defense — and he said that it would continue to be part of their repertoire for the rest of the season — this issue must be addressed in practice.
Young shined after sitting a year to take Derrick Pardon 101: Young simply plays like a veteran. He may be limited as a defensive presence, but Young knows where to be at all times and can create chances for others out of the post with his passing.
That, coupled with his ability to finish at the rim (7 for 9 field goals) makes for a big man wise beyond his years. Some of that can be attributed to battling Dererk Pardon every day in practice during his redshirt year last season.
“So proud of him,” said Collins. “(He) got his head kicked in everyday by Dererk Pardon. That’s no fun. It gets you tougher and gets you better. Dererk and Barret took him under their wing.”
Collins leaned on his depth, even down the stretch: Six Wildcats scored eight or more points, a drastic difference from last season, when the team rarely saw anyone outside of Pardon, Vic Law and Ryan Turner put up those kind of numbers on a regular basis. Bottom line: this is a much more balanced NU team.
When the Wildcats play with confidence, as they did tonight (48.9% shooting from the field, 43.8% from 3), it makes the game easier for everyone, as the opposing team doesn’t know on whom to focus their defense.
If they can continue having shooting performances like this, it is not hard to see Northwestern being more competitive than previously thought this season.
Providence’s press was a killer: One thing Collins has to work on with his team is beating the press. Many of Northwestern’s 20 turnovers came during the second half, when Providence went into a zone and then a full-court press after made baskets.
The Wildcats’ lead went from 20 to three during that span as they had trouble bringing the ball up the floor. Pete Nance, Kopp and Boo Bouie committed 11 of those turnovers, and several Cats coughed it up down the stretch.
When Big Ten play comes around, you can bet that teams will press this young Wildcat team, especially if the game is close.