Northwestern’s late season push for an at-large NCAA tournament bid took a hit Thursday when the Wildcats fell to Penn State at home, 66-52. The ‘Cats struggled all night in dealing with the Nittany Lions’ dribble penetration with their zone defense, which resulted in a bunch of scoring opportunities for PSU forward Jeff Brooks. With games against Wisconsin and Minnesota left on the schedule, Coach Carmody and company face an uphill battle in making a statement for their tournament prospects. Nevertheless, looking at the game a little more closely never hurts.
Hero of the Game |Michael “Juice” Thompson
In his 122nd consecutive start, Juice played all 40 minutes for the eighth time this season. His 22 points led the team on a night where offense was at a premium. Only two other players cracked double digits (Crawford and Shurna had 11 and 10 respectively), as Northwestern struggled offensively. Juice has shouldered a larger portion of the scoring load over the last eight games (averaging just under 18 points per game) but the ‘Cats are 3-5 in those games. As the season draws to a close, the prospect of losing Juice is a tough one going into next season. His leadership, scoring and tenacity have kept Northwestern afloat in a difficult Big Ten and will be sorely missed.
Stat of the Game | Penn State assists on 19 of 26 field goals
Penn State guards Talor Battle and Tim Frazier handled Northwestern’s pressure defense and set up their teammates with good opportunities throughout the game. PSU shot 56 percent from the field and kept Northwestern’s zone scrambling to cover ball reversals. Frazier was especially problematic for the ‘Cats to the tune of a double-double (10 points and 10 assists), and kept the Penn State offense humming despite some well-applied Wildcat pressure. Easy shots yielded 19 assists for the Nittany Lions against a Northwestern zone that at times looked less than spirited.
Turning Point/Momentum Changer |Cammeron Woodyard dunk, assisted by Tim Frazier with 1:17 left in the 2nd half (PSU 63-50)
Northwestern fell behind early and played from behind for the majority of the game. After trailing 18-2 in the opening minutes of the game, the ‘Cats clawed their way back into contention. In the waning moments of the game, however, Frazier led a fast break that ended with Woodyard’s emphatic send-home. The run-out was indicative of PSU’s guard play all night, leaving the Wildcats scrambling to cover in transition. The game remained close at halftime — thanks largely to PSU’s lack of free throw attempts — but giving up 40 points after the break put Northwestern down for the count.
One Thing to Improve On |Perimeter Defense
Northwestern struggled to stay with Frazier and Battle, but found dribble penetration even more troubling. Defensive breakdowns opened up the 1-3-1, and yielded a number of points in the paint. In a game that Northwestern never led, defense was a source of angst for coaches and fans alike. With two games remaining before the Big Ten tournament, Northwestern must work to fix these meddlesome holes. Coach Carmody needs to preach the concept of rebounding and playing defense as a team. Northwestern will undoubtedly find itself outmatched physically, and the only way to combat that mismatch is for all five players to make a commitment to defense and rebounding.