“O-lah, O-lah” chants rang through Welsh-Ryan and a Romanian flag hung in the student section as Alex Olah stepped to the free throw line for the final time at Welsh-Ryan Arena with 25.2 seconds remaining in the game. The senior made both, capping off a 65-54 win for Northwestern (20-11, 8-10 B1G) over Nebraska (14-17, 6-12 B1G) on Senior Day.
“I don’t know how I kept it in, I was really emotional,” Olah, whose parents traveled to the United States for the first time to attend his final game in Evanston, said. “I tried to put the game before all the emotions … I was so proud they could make it and watch me play for the final time here.”
The game marked the final appearance at Welsh-Ryan for both Olah and senior Tre Demps, and they certainly made the most of it. The duo combined for 36 of the team’s 65 points, with Olah adding eight rebounds and Demps canning two three-pointers.
The game started slow with both teams struggling to find their offense, but when a Demps three-pointer put the Wildcats up 12-11, they never looked back. Over a 10:26 stretch in the first half, NU went on a 25-4 run, turning an 11-9 deficit into a 34-15 advantage with just over two minutes to play in the first half. The home side went into intermission leading 39-22.
Northwestern head coach Chris Collins admitted after the game he was worried about the game becoming too emotional, especially for the seniors.
“I thought it was going to have to be our young guys getting us off to a great start with the emotions of senior night, but it flipped, the guys that got us off to the great start were our older guys … I’m just so happy for them,” Collins said.
Northwestern played a balanced first half offensively, shooting a sizzling 53.8 percent from the field and registering 18 points in the paint. Their offense appeared to stagnate at times in the second half, though, and Nebraska was able to claw back into the game to a degree, as they turned what was once a 20-point deficit into a deficit of just six with 4:03 left in the game.
However, a contested Demps floater and big mid-range jumper from Olah sparked a 10-5 run for the Wildcats to finish the game, propelling them to a gratifying final home victory.
The contest ended with Demps pulling in a defensive rebound off of a last second heave by Shavon Shields, followed by a standing ovation from the Welsh-Ryan crowd. Players embraced on the court before engaging in the traditional handshake line and exiting.
The victory marks the first time in program history that NU has reached 20 regular season wins. Under Collins, the Wildcats have seen improvement each year – and Olah and Demps have been there for it all.
“I try to be like him, he’s a great leader and he knows so much about basketball, his passion for the game is what stuck with me so much … I wanted to win just to not let him down,” Olah said of Collins.
Collins acknowledged that reaching 20 wins was momentous for the program, but stressed that the team’s focus will shift to the Big Ten Tournament after a day of rest. The Tournament begins Thursday, March 10, for the 'Cats against the Michigan Wolverines, who defeated NU 72-63 in Ann Arbor on Feb. 25.
But it’s worth noting, at least for now, how far a seemingly lost Northwestern basketball program has come under the tutelage of Collins, Olah and Demps.
“You want to leave momentum for the program … No one’s perfect and there have been growing pains, but I think the program is in a really good place,” Demps said.
There may not be a first-ever NCAA Tournament berth on the horizon for the 'Cats, but if you look at the program’s progress over Collins’ tenure and listen to people inside the locker room, it’s not hard to feel good about the current state of Northwestern men’s basketball.