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Northwestern is on its way. . . but still has lessons to learn

Bryant McIntosh, Northwestern Wildcats, Missouri Tigers

Northwestern went toe to toe in an important conference game with the ability to separate at-large hopefuls. But they still have lessons to learn to win.

Breaking one of sports greatest curses is never without its pitfalls and difficulties. The Cleveland Cavaliers had to come back from down 3-1 just as the Chicago Cubs did a few months later. Northwestern’s turn was never going to be easy. It was never going to be a straight line.

When something has never been done before, the first time is never going to be easy. The weight of history is always present. Every win inches the team closer. Every loss sets the team back. And the losses always outweigh the wins.

That is the stage the Northwestern Wildcats enter seemingly every game now that they have turned to conference season seemingly in control of their own destiny — in a wide-open Big Ten, at that. Here the team was facing its first big “toss-up” game with another at-large opponent in Minnesota. This was a chance for separation.

Northwestern’s season was not on the line. But the Wildcats could get a big confidence boost heading into the first part of their schedule and serve notice they were first in line among the bubble teams in the conference.

For 40 minutes, these two teams showed they were equals. The Wildcats, though, found themselves with the most regret. The weight of the moment might be light — officially, Northwestern is not talking about the history this group is trying to write — but it feels enormous in those close moments.

There is no time to rest or relax. Peril and frustration are always right around the corner.

When Scottie Lindsey got a steal and raced down the court for an emphatic dunk for a 47-40 Northwestern lead, it felt liberating. Northwestern had gone toe-to-toe with an upstart Minnesota team and was beginning to assert itself on its home floor. The Wildcats were beginning to dominate the game like a Tournament team should.

All those questions and doubts were flushed through that net. The ovation was loud enough and staggering enough for Richard Pitino to call a timeout just to stem the tide. The Wildcats were executing on offense, making shots and controlling the pace defensively. The Gophers were not able to hit much.

It is never easy, though. This may very end up being “the year” for Northwestern. There is still a long way to go. The Gophers were not going to let the Wildcats off that easy.

They came out of that timeout and scored 10 straight points to take the lead back — and for good. Northwestern missed shot after shot.

Down the stretch, trailing by three and five points, open three after open three just would not fall. Perhaps Minnesota was willing to give up those shots. Gavin Skelly ended up taking six 3-pointers, missing all of them. But they were good looks. The kind of shots Northwestern has to take.

The results matter too. That is all the committee will care about. And a 70-66 loss to Minnesota at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Thursday does not spell the end for Northwestern. But it stings a lot.

The Wildcats are tantalizingly close. This is a team with length defensively on the perimeter and a grittiness that does not allow them to quit. Even as the Wildcats fell behind by five in the closing seconds and watched open 3s from their good 3-point shooters fall short, they dug out rebounds and extra possessions to keep things close. Northwestern will fight and scratch for every chance to win.

Northwestern will not miss those shots all the time. For the game, the Wildcats shot 38.1 percent from the floor and 6 for 26 from beyond the arc. They were just 1 for 15 from beyond the arc in the second half. The shots were there, they just would not go down.

After that dunk that put Northwestern up seven, the team could not execute the same way. Minnesota switched on those dribble hand offs, the passes were not crisp and Minnesota’s length on the perimeter disrupted any attempt to create space. The Wildcats’ offense came to a standstill.

The defense kept the Cats in it, for sure. But they were still a bit undersized going up against Reggie Lynch. He totaled six offensive rebounds for the game and was a constant problem. Northwestern pluckiness against that size could only take them so far.

The Wildcats have to make shots and have to rely on their stars — Bryant McIntosh and Victor Law specifically — when they are going through these droughts. Northwestern just could not seem to make the right plays.

McIntosh finished with 21 points and five assists. Law finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, making four of his 12 shots. They could not keep pace as Minnesota made its run.

These are the lessons the Wildcats are still learning about winning at a high level. It is going to be a continuing lesson.

But Northwestern is close. Oh so close.

The sky is not falling after this loss. There will be another opportunity — namely, Sunday at Nebraska. And then another after that. The Wildcats, even at 1-2 in the Big Ten, may very well still control their own destiny.

But they must learn the lessons of this game, whether it is just making shots or figuring out how to execute better when physical defense knocks them out of rhythm, if they want to release history’s weight off this program’s shoulders.

Northwestern showed itself more than capable against a fellow bubble team in Minnesota. Now the Wildcats just have to win these games and begin separating themselves from the pack.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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