The Chris Collins era began with a bang as Northwestern defeated the Eastern Illinois Panthers 72-55 in front of a packed house at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday night.
Collins came away from his first game as head coach at the collegiate level with his first win.
“Once you start your coaching career, of course you dream of being in those moments, and having your own team, and having to make decisions,” he said. “It was a special night.”
One major concern after Wednesday's exhibition win over Lewis was how the ‘Cats offense would look under a new system. After shooting 46.5 percent from the field on Saturday night, it looked as though the individuals on the team were all fast learners.
The ‘Cats jumped out to an early 18-7 lead, 10 of those points coming from senior guard Drew Crawford, who finished the game with 25 points and 11 rebounds. Collins had nothing but positive things to say about Crawford’s performance.
“I thought Drew played like a fifth-year, All-Big Ten player tonight," Collins said. "He kept our team calm the whole game, even when we were going through some struggles.”
For most of the first half, he and his teammates were on point. During one stretch, Northwestern went on a 19-3 run.
But with under five minutes to go in the half, the ‘Cats ran into a bit of trouble. They began to play sloppy on both ends, allowing Eastern Illinois to cut dramatically to the lead. The Panthers went on a 15-3 run to end the half, giving the ‘Cats just a 32-28 lead going into the locker room.
“Their pressure bothered us, there’s no question about it," Collins said. "I thought they turned up the heat with their pressure. They had us on our heals a little bit and had us running our offense from out near half court. Give Eastern Illinois the credit. It wasn’t something we weren’t doing, it was all their defense.”
Reggie Smith, a UNLV transfer, was a huge reason behind the Panthers surge. He had 14 points at the half and ended the game with 19.
Coming out of the half, the ‘Cats looked ready to attack. Northwestern scored the first seven points of the second half, giving them an 11-point lead, which they refused to let slip away for a second time. Crawford continued to do his thing, and sophomore center Alex Olah came up big with four early points of his own to give the ‘Cats a comfortable lead.
The defense, though, was really the story for the ‘Cats in the second half. Eastern Illinois didn’t manage their first field goal of the half until only 11:39 remained in the game. Nothing came easy for the Panthers, who struggled to get anything going offensively and were forced to settle for highly contested threes. They finished just 2-for-18 from beyond the arc.
With less than six minutes to go, Northwestern was up 60-47 and firing on all cylinders. Redshirt freshman guard Sanjay Lumpkin and Crawford each hit big three-pointers to seal the deal.
On Saturday night, ‘Cats fans got to see redshirt junior JerShon Cobb suit up for the first time in a regular season game since his freshman year. Last year he was suspended for violating team rules but didn’t look rusty at all against the Panthers. Cobb, who is considered more of a defensive specialist, scored nine points and had eight assists.
“He’s our playmaker,” Collins said. “Some of his late clock plays were huge for us. He drove in there and either scored or he made some beautiful kick-outs.”
Forward Nate Taphorn also joined in on the fun. The lone true freshman on the NU roster contributed five points and four rebounds off the bench and forced several turnovers on defense without having any of his own. In addition, his 25 minutes of game time were an indication that Taphorn could be a significant factor for the ‘Cats this season.
The fan support certainly couldn’t have hurt either. All week long, the Wildside student section had been going dorm-to-dorm encouraging fellow students to attend the home opener, which they did. Both student sections were filled, and it’s evident that their enthusiasm and rowdiness was a huge factor behind the Panther’s dismal 55 percent free throw shooting.
Although he’s proud that his team is now 1-0, Collins wants to take everything one game at a time.
“It’s a long year, and we've just got to keep getting better,” he said.
Northwestern's next game is at Stanford on Thursday.