By Adam Rossow
Northwestern had a chance to match the program’s best start through six conference games in nearly 50 years by defeating Penn State on Saturday night, but the Wildcats literally missed the opportunity.
Like most of their wayward 3-point attempts, the Wildcats came up short (and long) in a bid for their fourth Big Ten victory, falling 71-62 to the Nittany Lions at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Northwestern made only 3 of 26 beyond the arc in the game and finished with one of its worst shooting performances of the season.
Northwestern coach Chris Collins said after the loss the dismal shooting was a product of his team’s lackluster attitude and effort to begin the game.
“They [Penn State] were more competitive. They brought the fight to the start of the game,” Collins said. “We weren’t ready to compete at that level.”
Collins said before Friday’s practice his team wouldn’t overlook Penn State (11-8, 2-4 Big Ten), but their sluggish play to begin Saturday’s game said otherwise. After taking an early three-point lead, the Wildcats missed 10 of 11 shots during a seven-minute stretch and watched the visitors build a double-digit advantage behind Brandon Taylor’s hot shooting in the first half.
Northwestern (15-4, 3-3) tried – and failed – to get back into the game using the 3-point shot. They missed their first 17 3-point field goals until senior Tre Demps’ make midway through the second half, after Penn State’s lead ballooned to 17.
A late 18-8 surge led by Demps’ nine points cut the Wildcats’ deficit to seven with 40 seconds remaining. Penn State was perfect at the free-throw line, though, nailing all six of its attempts to preserve the win.
Northwestern must regroup quickly with its toughest stretch of the season on the horizon. The Wildcats’ next four Big Ten opponents are all ranked in the Top-25 – three of which they battle away from Welsh-Ryan Arena. They are also the top four scoring teams in the league, which will test Northwestern’s defense.
They open the gauntlet on Tuesday at No. 7 Maryland, which easily disposed of Collins’ team earlier this month in Evanston.
“Defensively, Maryland and Penn State are similar,” Demps said. “Everybody needs to work on decision making once you get into the lane. We have to make better reads, and I think that starts with me.”
Another road test follows at No. 25 Indiana on Saturday before Northwestern plays a home contest against No. 11 Michigan State on January 28.
The final game of the stretch might be the toughest. On the final day of January, the Wildcats travel to Iowa City to play the No. 9 Hawkeyes. Iowa is on a season-long, six-game winning streak and feature Jarrod Uthoff, a leading Big Ten Player of the Year candidate.
“If you want to be a good team, you have to try and make it up on the road,” Collins said. “We’ve got to get ourselves ready to play Maryland on Tuesday night and put something together to play our best game up at College Park.”
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