Northwestern survives Virginia Tech in Blacksburg

By Josh Wasserman

The Big Ten/ACC showdown between Northwestern and Virginia Tech went down to the wire as the Wildcats pulled out their second overtime win this season, this time on the road by the score of 81-79 over the Hokies.

The theme of Northwestern’s season has been which player will step up to supplement Tre Demps and Bryant McIntosh any given game, but tonight, it was two players who got the job done. Nathan Taphorn had remained relatively quiet this season, knocking down a three-point shot here and there, but tonight he exploded for 11 crucial points off the bench, shooting 3-5 from downtown—this all in addition to his noticeable improvement on defense as I noted was necessary in my report card. The second player was Sanjay Lumpkin, who posted 12 points and corralled seven boards, while also playing stifling defense that the Wildcats would need on Virginia Tech’s final possession in overtime.

McIntosh led all Wildcats with 19 points, but NU had to weather the Seth Allen/Justin Bibbs storm from Virginia Tech. Allen, a transfer from Maryland who was ineligible to play last year, came off the bench to score 25 points, nearly double his season average of 13. Shooting 4-8 from three-point range, Allen kept the Hokies in the game all night. But fellow guard Bibbs was even more unstoppable shooting the ball, draining seven shots on 11 attempts from the field and 3-5 from beyond the arc.

Three-point shooting was more important than ever tonight, particularly in the first half, with both teams shooting over 42 percent from long-range in the first twenty minutes. With a few minutes remaining in the half, the two teams were consistently trading triples, and there was a time when the teams combined for four straight triples without a two-pointer.

Tre Demps had come out firing for Northwestern, scoring 13 of the Wildcats’ first 22 points in the first ten minutes of the game, but Allen and Bibbs made their presence known early on, never letting the lead extend beyond ten. A Kerry Blackshear mid-range jumper cut the lead to six with 13 seconds left in the half, but Alex Olah, who had an important game defensively, hit a deep three-pointer as time expired to return Northwestern’s lead to nine.

The offensive onslaught stalled at the beginning of the second half, however, as the teams combined for nine points in the first six minutes. Demps and Taphorn, Northwestern’s leading scorers at half, did not score until the 10:53 mark when Taphorn hit a jumper, and Demps only scored four more points in the second half and overtime combined.

McIntosh picked up Demps’ slack though, and with some timely shooting from Taphorn and Lumpkin, the Wildcats were able to hold the lead for the majority of the second half while withstanding Bibbs, Allen, and Chris Clarke’s offensive efforts to send the game to overtime.

Virginia Tech struck first in overtime on a Jalen Hudson layup, and increased their lead to four, their largest of the game, on a Satchel Pierce (yes, not Satchel Paige) tip-in, but another clutch shot from Lumpkin cut the deficit to one, and McIntosh rattled home a three-pointer after that.

On the final possession with Northwestern up two, Allen sized up Lumpkin at the top of key, but Lumpkin never gave an inch, and after forcing Allen to pass the ball off twice, McIntosh’s help defense assisted in forcing Allen to turn the ball over as the clock ran out.

Lumpkin’s ultimate defensive stand was part of a larger improved defensive effort from the Wildcats. Zach LeDay, Virginia Tech’s leading scorer averaging 19 points and almost 11 rebounds a game, finished the game with just two points, both coming off free throws with five and a half minutes remaining in the second half. Chris Collins implemented a man-to-man defense for long stretches of the game, and when he periodically switched to a 2-3 zone, Virginia Tech’s surprising three-point shooting forced the switch back to man.

That being said, Northwestern was switching much more fluidly on defense and got big performances out of Olah down low, who finished with three blocks, and Lumpkin. Even guys like Taphorn and Falzon, who had struggled these first few weeks on defense, looked more comfortable in the man set. Furthermore, the man defense allowed for Northwestern to defend the rim better, and it showed as the Wildcats led points in the paint 18 to 6 at halftime.

It came down to an electrifying finish, but the Wildcats pulled off their most well rounded performance of the season, receiving contributions offensively and defensively from a variety of sources. Coming away with a win on the road against the Hokies is another big morale booster as NU heads into a six-game stretch of manageable non-conference opponents.

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