INDIANAPOLIS – In his first season as a Duke assistant coach, Chris Collins earned a ring. And not just any ring. The Blue Devils won the NCAA tournament championship with a 10-point victory over Arizona.
In his first season at Northwestern … not so much.
“When you’re building from the ground up,” Collins said, “you go through those extreme highs and lows to get to where you want to be.”
The Wildcats won three straight Big Ten road games for the first time since 1960, and they were hoping for another high Thursday night in the first round of the conference tournament.
They got just that with a stunning 67-62 victory over Iowa to advance to the quarterfinals in the Big Ten tournament Friday night against third-seeded Michigan State.
Northwestern led by as many as seven points in the second half and took a 53-49 lead with 5 minutes to play on a Dave Sobolewski 3-pointer that barely beat the shot clock.
It was Sobolewski’s first 3 in five tries. And the junior point guard entered the night shooting 16.7 percent from beyond the arc.
Then it happened again: Sobolewski drained another 3 to put Northwestern up 60-53.
Tre Demps hit a floater with 54 seconds to play, putting his team up 62-56 and they held on for the victory.
Demps led the Wildcats (13-18) with 20 points while Roy Devyn Marble had 25 for the Hawkeyes (20-11).
The first half ended dramatically, with Marble draining a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left, and Demps responding with one at the buzzer to tie it 31-31.
But in at least one way, the teams were not equal.
Iowa used 10 players in the first half, with none logging more than 17 minutes.
Demps, Drew Crawford and Alex Olah all played 20 minutes for Northwestern, and Sanjay Lumpkin was in the game for 19.
The Wildcats pledged to play the game as if they had nothing to lose. Perhaps because all they have done in previous Big Ten tournaments is lose.
In 16 tries under Bill Carmody, the Wildcats never reached the semifinals, let alone making it to Sunday. The venue hasn’t mattered, either. They were 3-9 in Indianapolis and 3-7 at the United Center.
The Wildcats dealt with foul trouble throughout the second half. After Kale Abrahamson got hit with an off-the-ball foul with 16:48 to play, Collins hollered across the court to referee D.J. Carstensen.
“D.J.!” Collins yelled. “[That’s] six fouls.”
No surprise, then, that Iowa did plenty of damage from the line after the intermission.
A loss Thursday would have closed out Northwestern’s season at 13-19, the same record as last season under Carmody. Last season ended with a Big Ten tournament loss to Iowa.
Instead the Wildcats made a statement, beating an Iowa team headed to the NCAA tournament.