The panic button sat in plain sight for Northwestern fans Thursday.
Mississippi Valley State, a cakewalk game on paper, pushed Northwestern to its limits in only its second game of the young season. The Delta Devils trailed by only two at halftime, leaving Welsh-Ryan Arena in a state of near-shock.
MVSU forward Davon Usher gave Northwestern fits all night, finishing with 35 points including seven threes. The Wildcats struggled with the Devils’ physicality in the post, and forward Drew Crawford battled foul trouble for most of the game. A second-half NU run was all that kept Cinderella from finding her slipper.
Many will dwell on Northwestern’s troublesome defensive effort, allowing MVSU to shoot 47% from the field, or their failure to decisively win the rebounding battle, 29-28. But a surprise early-season test may have been just what Northwestern needed going forward.
As the foul-stricken Crawford sat, seniors Reggie Hearn and Jared Swopshire stepped up majorly. Though Carmody admitted to playing them too many minutes, both responded with big-time performances.
Hearn was everywhere, with 23 points (four on threes) and six assists to keep the ‘Cats in the game. Three of those rebounds came on the offensive side, helping swing momentum in Northwestern’s favor. He continued to make plays both big and small, despite his admittedly spotty defensive effort on Usher and was a positive influence on his team throughout.
Swopshire made his first big impact as a Wildcat, with 22 points and six rebounds. Despite five turnovers, he drained five timely three-pointers to keep MVSU at arm’s length. Swopshire finally looked comfortable shooting the ball and began to deliver on the promise NU hoped for when he transferred from Louisville.
Also instrumental to Northwestern’s second-half run was point guard Dave Sobolewski, whose troubles scoring the ball dated back to late last season. But the sophomore turned up in a big way, finding his shot in the second half when he contributed all 13 of his points. Per usual, he got his teammates involved with eight assists and even chipped in six rebounds. His resurgence keyed the Wildcats as they finally pulled away.
A Wildcats team still searching for its identity found a piece of it. The leadership and grit their veterans showed this early in the year can only be positive, despite their issues handling a lesser team. Take away Usher’s extraordinary night, and Northwestern wins handily. It’s normal for teams to suffer scares this early in the season, and perhaps now Northwestern has gotten its out of the way.
Though defense and rebounding remain troublesome, Northwestern has plenty of time to tune up before the games grow more important. Sunday’s date with Fairleigh Dickinson seems a good place to start. The resilience and composure the ‘Cats displayed throughout Mississippi Valley State’s challenge bodes well for their marathon of a season.
Bite your nails all you want, but it’s much too early to cry wolf.
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