Northwestern basketball had a lot at stake Sunday night against Rutgers.
The Wildcats delivered.
Chris Collins’ team defeated Rutgers, 65-53, earning the second seed in the Big Ten tournament and breaking the program record for most Big Ten wins in a season. Brooks Barnhizer led the way with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Cliff Omoruyi had 14 points and six rebounds in a losing effort late in the regular season.
Five seconds into the game, the Scarlet Knights took the lead when senior Paul Mulcahy threw an allied oop at Omoruyi, and Northwestern turned the ball over on their first possession. After a few round trips without points, Matthew Nicholson was refused by Omoruyi and responded with a block of his own on Mulcahy.
After a missed three by Chase Audige two minutes later, Aundre Hyatt hit a triple to give Rutgers a 5-0 lead. Northwestern started 0 for 5 before Ty Berry scored a three-pointer to give the Wildcats their first points of the game and cut the UK lead to 5-3. Neither team could do much on offense in the opening minutes, and by the first commercial break it was 5-3 in favor of the Scarlet Knights.
Coming out of the break, Rutgers sandwiched a steal between two quick field goals to take a sudden 10-3 lead. The next possession, Berry made his second basket of the game to make it 10-5. The junior was the only North West player to score in the opening six minutes and remained the ‘Cats’ lone scorer until Barnhizer passed McConnell to put the Wildcats within three with 13:39 to go. in the half.
Omoruyi missed both of his free throws on the next possession, and Barnhizer earned his second straight shot to enter. Race 9-0. Immediately afterwards, however, Rutgers rookie Derek Simpson got a one-and-one to tie the game at 12 before a media break.
Simpson missed his free throw at the end of timeout, and Nick Martinelli quickly found Matthew Nicholson for a dunk to give Northwestern another two-point lead. Then, on the Cats’ next possession, Audige threw the ball to Nicholson for his second straight dunk. Then, sandwiched between a Rutgers turnover and an Audige block, Barnhizer had his third basket to put Northwestern up six.
The Scarlet Knights quickly cooled after their first push and found themselves scoreless for more than six minutes midway through the first half, and while Northwestern had their own drought, the ‘Cats were still leading 18 -12 with 7:27 to go. in the first period.
Antwone Woolfolk hit a layup five minutes from the end of the half to give Rutgers their first points since 11:26, and Boo Buie pushed McConnell for his second foul of the game on the following possession. Buie was substituted and did not play for the remainder of the half.
After a longer TV break due to smoke coming out of the Jersey Mike’s Arena scoreboard (yes, that actually happened; yes, that was as ridiculous as that sounds), the game resumed with the fourth basket from Barnhizer to give Northwestern its first mark on the field in over six minutes.
The next possession, Tydus Verhoeven set up his own try for his first points. Robbie Beran got in on the action, with a triple to give Northwestern a 25-15 lead, their biggest of the half. A 6-0 run from Rutgers to close out the half, including a Spencer three and lay-ups from Simpson and Omoruyi, left the score 25-21 in favor of the visitors at half-time.
Both teams went goalless to start the second half, and a Hyatt free throw opened the scoring for the second half to make it a one-possession game. Buie turned the ball over on the ensuing possession and quickly picked up his third foul of the game, once again taking him out of the game.
Barnhizer then hit a half-range shot to give Northwestern their first points of the half and restored the lead to five. After Spencer had two free throws, the Wildcats put together back-to-back buckets from Berry and Nicholson to extend their lead to 31-24 in the under-16-minute media timeout.
Right after the commercial, Barnhizer continued to light it. He hit his first triple of the game and blew through his defender on NU’s next possession. Behind the strong performance in second, the Wildcats found themselves in the top 10 at the Under-12 break.
After the hosts moved into single digits, Buie reappeared for his first points of the game on a three-point play to silence the crowd. It was also Northwestern’s first free throw opportunity in the game, at 9:33 of the second half. Berry went into double digits with a layup the next possession, extending NU’s lead to 13
Although the Scarlet Knights were back to single digits behind four consecutive free throws from Mulcahy, an alley-oop Audige to Nicholson brought the Wildcats down to 11 and quieted the Scarlet faithful again. Buie then delivered what amounted to a dagger, dropping his front three to give Northwestern a game-high 14 points.
Although Rutgers held on with a few marks to stay alive, Buie hit two more triples to restore the 14-point advantage. The Wildcats led 56-44 when Steve Pikiell took his final timeout with 3:23 left.
The rest of the game was slow, and while Rutgers would have had their chances, Northwestern wouldn’t have fallen back enough to impact the outcome of the game. The ‘Cats continued to sink enough of their free throws to put the game out of reach for the Scarlet Knights, securing a massive victory in a hostile environment.
After getting a double bye with the victory, the ‘Cats will now turn their attention to Friday at 5:30 p.m. CT, when they begin their Big Ten tournament against the winner of Thursday’s Penn State vs. Illinois matchup at the United Center.