Saturday, January 25, 2014

No. 10 Iowa rolls in Evanston, handles upset-minded Wildcats

Fouad Egbaria

Northwestern 50, No. 10 Iowa 76

When the Northwestern Wildcats and Iowa Hawkeyes in their current forms meet, the difference in philosophy is stark. The Wildcats, like pre-2013-14 Wisconsin, play tough defense and slow the game down. The Hawkeyes want to run, run, run. 

Don't look now, but after a brutal home loss against DePaul and three straight thumpings at the hands of Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, Chris Collins's Wildcats have won three of their last four, including a competitive 54-40 loss against Michigan State. Size, skill and depth isn't quite there yet for Northwestern, but their identity is very clear, a crucial development for a program under a first-year head coach. 

When the Wildcats went to Iowa City on Jan. 9, they lost 93-67, allowing the Hawkeyes to score a whopping 1.29 points per possession. They'd have to do a little better than that this afternoon in Welsh-Ryan if they planned on coming away with their fourth win in five games, a win that would, amazingly, move them to 4-4 in the Big Ten. 

Paced by a couple of early threes from Drew Crawford, the Wildcats did just enough to muck things up so that Iowa couldn't run away with things from the start. By the 12-minute media timeout the Hawkeyes led 14-10; however, in typical Iowa fashion, seven different Hawkeyes had scored to get those 14. 

The Hawkeyes eventually surged to a 23-15 lead--it seemed as if Northwestern's hopes of staying in the game were evaporating fast. 

The Wildcats weren't done yet. A Drew Crawford and-1 with just over a minute left cut the Iowa lead to 28-24. After a Melsahn Basabe jumper in the paint with a few seconds left in the half, the Wildcats went into the halftime break down 30-24. All things considered, that is a win for an offensively challenged Northwestern squad against an Iowa team with scoring options all over the floor. 

Of course, the Wildcats would have to turn up the defensive intensity even further in the second half if they were going to pull off their biggest upset yet. 
A Tre Demps triple in transition cut the lead to 34-40, and things seemed on track for a hotly contested game the rest of the way.

Iowa had other ideas. A 7-0 Iowa run gave the Hawkeyes their biggest lead of the game, 41-30, right before the 16-minute media timeout. Unless the Wildcats' defense created some offense or their shooters caught fire from beyond the arc, Iowa's depth threatened to turn this game into a blowout. 

Unfortunately for the Wildcats, C Alex Olah continued to struggle in the paint. Halfway through the second half, he was 0-for-6 from the field (at that point having missed 17 of his last 18 field goal attempts, going back to previous games). 

The Iowa lead extended to 16 points, 54-38, with just under 10 minutes to go. The odd thing about that lead is that Iowa acquired it with zero fast break points. The Wildcats did an excellent job slowing down the Hawkeyes' transition game, but couldn't get enough stops in general to give their struggling offense a chance, as they did in the Purdue game. 

Northwestern offered up a competitive first half, but the Hawkeyes are a much better team than Illinois, Indiana and Purdue (NU's three Big Ten wins). The Hawkeyes were simply too big, too fast and too good for the Wildcats, whose margin of error in this one was just about non-existent. 

Despite a quiet game from Aaron White (2-for-6, 5 points), the Hawkeyes cruised to a 76-50 victory, moving them to 5-2 in the conference. Meanwhile, the Wildcats drop to 3-5 in the Big Ten, which is probably a far better start through eight games than most people would have imagined for them. 

The Hawkeyes return to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Tuesday, where they'll face Michigan State, a must-win for the Hawkeyes' regular season title hopes. Northwestern heads up to Madison on Wednesday, where they'll take on the recently struggling Badgers. 

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