Playing some of its best basketball of the year, Northwestern got a much-needed win over Purdue on Saturday. Starting on a 12-0 run and finishing with a 75-60 final, the ‘Cats were paced by a career-high 26 points from senior forward Reggie Hearn.
After losing four of their last six games, the Wildcats reestablished some sense of relevance in the Big Ten with Saturday’s win. Northwestern now sits eighth in the Big Ten with a 4-6 conference record.
First-half three point shooting
The ‘Cats’ first offensive possession was a microcosm for the entire first half. After a perfectly executed off-ball screen, sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski lined up for a wide-open three from the wing. Swish.
The first half was nothing short of a spectacle. The Wildcats were a ridiculous 8-of-12 from downtown.
“The shots went in,” said head coach Bill Carmody, “but they were good shots that we want.”
Uncharacteristically, Northwestern managed to block 12 of Purdue’s shots. Heading into Saturday, the Wildcats were averaging an unimpressive 3.3 blocks per game.
A lot of credit goes to senior forward Jared Swopshire, who came away with four blocks. He was always around the rim to make sure nobody was getting an easy basket.
Purdue’s leading scorer, guard Terone Johnson, was held to five points after going 2-of-11 from the field. The junior wasn’t getting any easy shots, and credit goes to Northwestern’s team defense. The D did an excellent job of helping each other out on switches and screens, ensuring Johnson didn’t have an open lane to the basket.
The play of Reggie Hearn and Dave Sobolewski carried the Wildcats to victory.
“The last couple of games I didn’t really find my role in the offense,” Hearn said after the game. After consecutive single-digit scoring outputs, Hearn exploded Saturday.
Playing all 20 minutes of the first half, Hearn absolutely dominated, hitting 9-of-10 shots in the first half for 21 points.
“I got some of the same shots against Nebraska and Michigan, but I just didn’t hit them,” he said.
Hearn was less efficient in the second half, but overall his play elevated the ‘Cats and gave them a new offensive dimension.
Meanwhile, flexing veteran leadership, Sobolewski made all the right decisions with the ball. Sobo racked up six assists and made some excellent cuts to the basket for easy layups.
The backdoor cuts were open the entire game because Purdue defenders were focused on the perimeter.
Early on in the season, Northwestern was one of the top teams in the nation in assists. The Wildcats’ ability to share the ball was one of the main reasons for a hot 7-0 start.
Since, their assist totals have plummeted to 14.9 dishes per game. Yet against Purdue, the ‘Cats had 24 assists.
Precise passing from Sobolewski, freshman Alex Olah and senior Alex Marcotullio helped the Wildcats spread the floor and find offensive success.
“24 assists makes you feel good as a staff,” Carmody said. “Everybody was on the same page offensively.”
Second-half three point shooting
In the first half, the Wildcats’ three pointers came from designed plays and great execution. On most possessions, the offense was scoring in the last 15 seconds of the shot clock.
A lot of the threes taken in the second half were rushed. The offense got a little trigger-happy and didn’t allow plays to fully develop. Northwestern shot 21 percent on 3 of 14 from downtown in the final 20 minutes.
Granted, when you are shooting well, it’s hard to stop shooting, but the ‘Cats should have had more discipline in the second half.
Scoring only two total points, the bench was almost nonexistent.
Luckily for Northwestern, the starters were stellar. Since losing his starting spot to Tre Demps, freshman Kale Abrahamson has been quiet off the bench.
In team defense, center Alex Olah is really developing quickly. He manages to cut off the ball handler on screens and quickly gets back to his man.
However, when Olah needs to defend somebody one-on-one, he struggles.
Purdue freshman center A.J. Hammons managed to put up 19 points against Olah. Hammons’ quickness and physicality was a tough matchup for the 7-footer. It was surprising to see Purdue head coach Matt Painter limit Hammons’ touches in isolation plays.
Hearn described Hammons as “a space eater.” That space he ate up helped create Northwestern’s biggest problem of the afternoon: rebounds.
The Wildcats were absolutely dominated on the offensive glass. There are obviously fewer opportunities to get a rebound when you are making most of your shots, but the Boilermakers snagged 17 offensive rebounds to Northwestern’s four.
Northwestern usually does poorly on the glass because of their three-guard Princeton offense, but they could use some more help from Olah, Swopshire and redshirt freshman center Mike Turner.
The ‘Cats can’t afford to allow teams to get so many second opportunities on the glass, especially in their upcoming games against physical Iowa and Ohio State.
Throughout the game, Northwestern sports Hall-of-Famers were honored during timeouts. Maybe it was the appearance of Olympian Matt Grevers or the presence of Pat Ryan (namesake of Welsh-Ryan Arena and Ryan Field) that inspired the ‘Cats to be so sharp. Whatever it was, Northwestern needs to continue to play like it did on Saturday if the Wildcats have any chance of playing ball in March.