By Kevin Sweeney
Loud music and raucous cheers echoed from the Penn State locker room into the bowels of Welsh-Ryan Arena late Monday night.
It was likely the opposite mood in the Northwestern locker room postgame, as the Wildcats put up yet another putrid offensive performance en route to dropping a 59-52 contest at home to the Nittany Lions, who entered the game without a win in Big Ten play this season. The Wildcats failed to eclipse 55 points for the third consecutive game, the longest such streak for the program since January of 2014.
“Our inability to put the ball in the basket is really hurting us right now,” a dejected Chris Collins said postgame. “It’s up to me and the rest of the staff to continue to find ways to help these guys defensively.”
At the heart of those offensive struggles once again was senior captain Vic Law, who shot just 3-17 from the field and had six turnovers. In his last eight games, Law is now shooting just 23 percent from the field. Law has dealt with tendonitis in his knee in recent games, but it’s still a precipitous fall for a player who was averaging almost 19 points per game and shooting over 41% from downtown in the season’s first 13 contests.
“Nothing about me feels like Vic is not going to bounce back,” Collins said. “We need him to be aggressive.”
Outside of Dererk Pardon’s workmanlike 18-point, nine-rebound performance, Northwestern’s offense continued to sputter. The Wildcats found themselves forcing up shots late in the shot clock far too often and were rarely able to get clean looks at the rim.
“We have a hard time getting the ball into the paint off the dribble,” Collins said when asked to diagnose his team’s offensive struggles. “We have to cut well, we’ve got to utilize the post, we have to set screens, we have to get the defense moving, get them going side-to-side and find ways to get into the heart of the defense.”
Northwestern certainly showed fight down the stretch after the Nittany Lions extended their lead to eight with 10 minutes to play in the game. Law and Miller Kopp each hit threes, and the Wildcats got back to feeding Pardon down low. But Northwestern just couldn’t quite get over the hump to tie or take the lead again, and much of that can be attributed to being unable to consistently get quality looks on the offensive end.
It certainly didn’t help that Northwestern missed several opportunities in transition, especially late in the game when in need of a spark. In particular, a key four-point swing occurred late in the second half when AJ Turner got a steal and looked free for a dunk at the other end that would have cut the Wildcat deficit to two. Instead, the ball was stolen from behind by Penn State guard Jamari Wheeler, who quickly pushed the ball the other way for the Nittany Lions before eventually finding Lamar Stevens for a backbreaking layup.
Stevens was terrific all night for Penn State, posting an efficient 18 points while also stuffing the stat sheet with seven rebounds, six assists, two blocks and a steal. Perhaps the biggest play he made came on the defensive end, when he stripped Vic Law on the baseline in the final minute to virtually seal the game.
“I was more proud of his defense than his offense,” Nittany Lions’ head coach Patrick Chambers said. “He really stood his ground.”
While there’s still plenty of basketball to be played, a loss like this likely ends any hopes the Wildcats had of getting back to the NCAA Tournament this season, a frustrating development for a season that had started so promisingly. And while Collins stopped short of calling it the most disappointing loss of the year, he made it clear how big a blow this defeat was.
“In this league, if you don’t take advantage of home games, you can get yourself in a big hole,” Collins said. “Everyone is really good.”
Now, the Wildcats (12-10, 3-8 B1G) have to find a way to pick up the pieces and rebuild their confidence with three of their next four games coming on the road.
This loss certainly felt like rock bottom. Can the Wildcats find a way to right the ship, or is another sub-.500 season coming? This loss shouldn’t define Northwestern’s season: how they respond to it will.