Brooks Barnhizer goes for the rim in an early-season game. His nine first half points helped Northwestern keep it close against Penn State even when shots weren't falling. Photo by AJ Anderson/North by Northwestern. 

This Sunday, Northwestern Men’s Basketball (17-7, 8-5 B1G) took the court against Penn State (12-12, 6-7 B1G) for the second time this season, looking to sweep the Nittany Lions after a close victory in early January. After a few back-and-forth possessions, it was obvious: this would be another nailbiter, something the ’Cats have developed quite a penchant for this season.

Penn State won the tipoff and third-year forward Zach Hicks opened the scoring with a three. For the next 20 minutes of play, the game went back and forth, no team leading by more than five points and the score tied six separate times in the first half.

Third-year guard Brooks Barnhizer led first-half scoring with nine points and also grabbed three steals, while Penn State’s fourth-year guard Ace Baldwin Jr. led the Nittany Lions with eight points and four assists.

Offensive troubles for the ’Cats, including a 29% shooting percentage for the half, just three points from fourth-year guard Boo Buie and a degree of sloppiness in their offensive play kept the team from developing a sizable lead. On the other hand, Northwestern played tough defense, grabbed eight offensive rebounds to Penn State’s one and scored 14 second-chance points. Penn State’s notoriously bad three-point shooting was also a boon for the ’Cats in the first half when the Nittany Lions went two-of-eight from beyond the arc.

All told, Northwestern hung on to a 29-27 lead going into the second half, hoping for renewed energy.

They got their wish in the form of a one-two punch from Buie and second-year forward Nick Martinelli. In the second half, Buie added 12 points and dished out four assists, while Martinelli scored nine and grabbed four rebounds.

As the half progressed, the ’Cats managed to extend their lead to as many as eight points while Penn State fought to keep the game from slipping out of reach. With 39 seconds left to play, the Nittany Lions turned the ball over and Barnhizer threw down a fast-break dunk, bringing the Welsh-Ryan crowd to their feet. Although Penn State’s Baldwin Jr. responded with an immediate three-pointer and the Nittany Lions attempted to control the ’Cats with a full-court press, their efforts proved futile and Northwestern came away with the 68-63 win, after a series of stoppages in the form of fouls and timeouts.

Martinelli made his first career start, replacing fourth-year guard Ty Berry, who sat out the game due to a knee injury. He ended the game with 11 points and eight rebounds, and all other Northwestern starters also scored at least 11.

“When one person goes out, it doesn’t require just one person to step up,” Buie said after the game. “Everybody has to step up, including the guys that were already out there playing and starting.”

The ’Cats shot 31.7% from the field, a major departure from their 46.6% season average. But by forcing turnovers, grabbing rebounds – 39 total, tied for second-most of the season – and putting the work in on every possession, the ’Cats made up for their offensive weaknesses.

“It’s not gonna be pretty every game,” head coach Chris Collins said in a post-game press conference. “Some games are gonna be a dogfight, where it’s defense, and shots aren’t flying in… You gotta grind out every possession and you just gotta figure out how to win, and that’s what we did.”

As Northwestern enters the last month of the conference season and looks towards postseason play, every game matters. To set themselves up for an NCAA tournament bid, the ’Cats need to hold out in their final three home matchups and hopefully pick up a win on the road. They’ll get their next opportunity at Rutgers (13-10, 5-7 B1G) on Feb. 15. This season, Northwestern has yet to face the Scarlet Knights, who won big on Saturday against #11 Wisconsin (16-8, 8-5 B1G).

“This was a must-win,” Collins said of Northwestern’s victory. “For our guys to really grind it out today, a really good testament to the will in our locker room, and a really good step forward for us as we go on the road to Rutgers on Thursday.”

Thumbnail photo by AJ Anderson/North by Northwestern.