Northwestern fell to visiting Creighton, 92-88, Wednesday night in at Allstate Arena in a fast-paced, entertaining Gavitt Tipoff Game.
The Blue Jays (3-0) blitzed the Wildcats (2-1) in the first half, scoring 51 points on an efficient 55.6% mark from the field. Northwestern closed the first half brightly, closing it to a seven point game at halftime after having trailed as much as 15.
The ‘Cats came out scorching in the second half on a 7-0 run to make it a one-point game, and the two teams traded blows the rest of the way. Vic Law and Bryant McIntosh took over for Northwestern, scoring 13 straight field goals between the two of them.
Up by just two at 79-77, Creighton got its final push from a clutch three pointer from Marcus Foster. Northwestern made some big shots down the stretch and cut the game back to three at 88-85.
Creighton forced a tough shot at the rim, and was blocked by Law, but the referees ruled Law stepped out when he tried to corral the miss. With 11 seconds left on the shot clock, the ‘Cats forced another tough three from Khyri Thomas, but the rebound fell right to Martin Krampelj, who scored a putback on Law to make it a two possession game.
Gavin Skelly made a three on the ensuing possession to make it just 90-88, but Thomas made two free throws right after to ice the game.
Here are three takeaways from the up-and-down loss:
1. Northwestern’s Depth is a Big Issue
You’ll hear this a lot in the next few days. Northwestern’s bench was outscored 33-4. The entire bench didn’t make a field goal. Anthony Gaines and Barret Benson simply could not impact the game, with Isiah Brown and Jordan Ash not helping either. Because Scottie Lindsey and Dererk Pardon faced foul trouble for stretches of the game, Northwestern was forced to go its bench with middling results. The ‘Cats need Aaron Falzon back soon, or else the bench will become an insurmountable weakness against quality teams.
Because the depth was so poor, Chris Collins asked Law and McIntosh to produce Herculean efforts. The duo almost delivered, but also played 79 of an available 80 minutes. That won’t fly for a whole season.
Northwestern sorely misses Nathan Taphorn and Sanjay Lumpkin. Even if the team is more talented on paper this season, there is a clear dropoff between the starting five and everybody else. Through three games, the bench has scored 17 points.
2. The Defense Needs to Shore Up
Creighton shot 51% from the field, and had 48 points in the paint, compared to 26 for Northwestern. When they put the ‘Cats in a hole in the first half, the Blue Jays shot 56% from the field. The interior defense was poor from Benson and Pardon, and the Wildcats’ aggressive switching on screens ended up hurting them. It felt like the Blue Jays could get to the rim whenever they wanted.
Creighton certainly was making a lot of shots and playing at tempo designed to generate a high volume of open looks, but Northwestern was leaving shooters open and contesting shots poorly in the paint. The rotations from the bigs on drives past guards were just a step late too often. Losing Sanjay Lumpkin has compromised this team’s defensive identity.
Chris Collins can certainly whip this team into a solid defensive unit, but there is work to do. The pieces are there in Law, Pardon and even Lindsey, but the players have to avoid individual mental breakdowns.
3. Northwestern Got a Glimpse of Tournament Play
This was a well played game between two likely NCAA Tournament teams. Creighton should be around a 9 or 10 seed and Northwestern should be a 7 or 8 seed. There is upward potential for both squads, and Creighton showed what its explosive offense and deep rotation can do.
Northwestern didn’t bring its best game, but with Scottie Lindsey in foul trouble, the ‘Cats showed they have a truly lethal offensive trio. McIntosh and Law carried the load and made an array of tough shots. In a B- game, the team was still just one possession away from beating a fellow tournament team. The ‘Cats need to show more, but this group should remain confident it can rack up enough top-50 RPI wins to comfortably make the tournament.
And Allstate Arena? It’s no Welsh-Ryan, but it certainly brought the juice tonight. There was great energy when the ‘Cats got hot, and the crowd was into it when the game tightened up down the stretch. It won’t be this way for the majority of the season, but it feels like the ‘Cats are in ‘good hands’ for the marquee matchups on the schedule.