It wasn’t always pretty, but the Wildcats got off to a 1-0 start with a 65-58 win over the Houston Baptist Huskies (HBU), led by impressive collegiate debut performances by freshmen guard Bryant McIntosh and forward Vic Law.
The Huskies got out to a barking start, going on an early 10-0 run to go up 12-2. Junior center Alex Olah was struggling on the boards against his counterpart and fellow Eastern European big man senior center Ricmonds Vilde.
“In the first half, their physicality knocked us back, and they were bumping us around and being physical on drives,” head coach Chris Collins said. “To their credit, we didn’t have any film on them. So in the first half they had a whole different offense that they did not run last year, and I thought it got us on our heels. We had to adjust.”
It wasn’t helping matters that Northwestern’s shots, many of which were uncontested, simply weren’t falling in the first ten minutes, as the ‘Cats started 2-for-15 from the field. Collins cited first game jitters as the main reason for NU’s slow start.
“Opening night is a tough night because [the players] put a lot into this,” Collins said. “I want them to be a little bit anxious and nervous, because it means something to them. We missed some shots we normally hit, and in the first game when that happens, you have the tendency to get really tight, especially when you’re playing a team that’s so free and easy, who’s not playing with any pressure on them. So we were fighting a lot of different forces.”
Those early shooting struggles and difficulties down low helped the Huskies dash out to a 15-8 lead midway through the first. But as soon as sophomore forward Sanjay Lumpkin made a three in the corner to cut the lead to four and get the subdued crowd back into the game, some shots began to fall. McIntosh took the reigns on offense and brought NU within a point of the lead twice with some soft floaters and sharp passes that solicited several “oohs” from the crowd, but HBU continued to counter.
“BMac really carried us for a while,” Collins said. “That’s what he does, he’s a baller, that’s what I call him. The level of competition does not phase him, and he’s got a long way to go. When he has the ball, we feel like we’re in control.”
Law and McIntosh accounted for 16 of the team’s first 22 points, and helped the ‘Cats outscore the Huskies 17-14 down the stretch of the first half, even though they went back to the locker room trailing 31-28.
Those freshmen continued to lead the Northwestern offense in the second half, knocking down jumpers and finding senior guard JerShon Cobb and Olah (who scored 18 in the second half) down low for easy shots to put the ‘Cats up 49-44 with ten minutes to go.
Even so, HBU hung around by stepping up on the offensive boards and second chance buckets again, cutting the NU lead to 51-49. An emphatic one-handed dunk from Law from the baseline with under four minutes to go was as much of a symbolic dagger as the ‘Cats would need, putting them up nine following a 9-2 run.
Northwestern showed an increased energy near the end, playing stingy defense punctuated by a block from Olah. As the game clock wound down in the final minute, the ‘Cats withstood desperation defense from the Huskies and hit enough free throws to put the victory on ice.
McIntosh said that even though they had trouble scoring, the fact that the ‘Cats only turned the ball over five times is encouraging moving forward.
“I thought we did a great job tonight of taking care of the ball,” McIntosh said. “Unfortunately we didn’t shoot it very well, and that’ll come. But I think if we take care of the ball like we did tonight, we’ll be able to win a lot of games.”
Collins stressed the importance of just getting the win, and said he was proud of his team for fighting back despite coming out flat against a team some might refer to as inferior competition.
“We can play a whole lot better,” Collins said. “But I won’t apologize for winning, I never will. The goal of the game is to win, and we worked through some stuff and found a way to win.”
It was a little scary when the ‘Cats were down 12-2 to Houston Baptist at home just because it was, well, Houston Baptist … at home. But McIntosh and Law are studs, and they showed it tonight in their first games in college ever. Olah not so quietly led the team with 21 points, and his adjustments in the second half were great to see against a very physical opponent in Vilde. Did the ‘Cats win unimpressively? Yes. But as Collins said, opening night jitters are very real, and they reared their ugly head tonight. That shouldn’t take away from the overflowing optimism surrounding the talent on this team.
It doesn’t get any easier from here, though, so look for the ‘Cats to make adjustments and step up over the remainder of their non-conference schedule. Northwestern will look to build on its undefeated start when it travels to Providence, Rhode Island on Monday to take on the Brown Bears at 6 p.m. central time.