Nov. 10, 2013
NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at Northwestern's season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois Saturday night, the first win for new head coach Chris Collins.
The pre-game clock ticks down below two minutes and Chris Collins, closing in on his debut as a head coach, is standing in front of the `Cats bench. His hands are clasped demurely in front of him, as if he were a choir boy awaiting instruction. His face is a stoic mask and his eyes are locked on the players from Eastern Illinois, this Saturday night's opponent, who are warming up in front of him. But it is his body that is most noticeable. It is swaying back-and-forth, back-and-forth, back-and-forth in a metronomic rhythm, continuing on like this for better than 90 seconds and not ending until he must break his reverie to shake hands with this evening's officials.
"When I was a player," he will later say, "you have dreams of playing in the NBA or playing in the Final Four. Once you're done with that and you start your coaching career, of course you dream of being in those moments and having your own team and having to make decisions. It was a special night."
Now that night is over, and his `Cats have defeated the Panthers by 17, and he walks into this room for his press conference wearing the smile of a kid who has found his dream present under the tree on Christmas morning. He waves to his children, who are in the back of this room, and his son Ryan dashes forward for a hug, and his daughter, Kate, does the same, and then he is saying, "It was really exciting.
"I've tried the whole time to not make it about me, and I really believe that. It's about these guys. I had so many guys who hadn't played in over a year. I look out on the floor, and you've got Drew (Crawford) who hasn't played in over a year, and Sanjay Lumpkin who's a freshman and played like two college games, and Nate Taphorn who's in his first college game. JerShon Cobb's been out more than he's played in his college career. So I'm really happy for those guys. But I'm an emotional guy. I get excited, good and bad, that's kind of who I am. I was really excited for the game. I just wanted to get out there and play."
Crawford certainly played. In his first game back from season-ending shoulder surgery, he scored a game-high 25 points and collected a game-high 11 rebounds. "It's the best feeling to be back on the court," he would later say. "Basketball's the game I love. I love playing with my teammates and coaches. Having to sit out most of a season is one of the toughest things I've gone through. So to get back out there is a great feeling."
Cobb, who missed all of last season after violating a team rule, played as well. He scored nine points and handed out eight assists and often broke down the Panther defense with his penetration, which helped catalyze the `Cat offense this night. "He's our playmaker," Collins said of him. "Some of his late clock plays were huge for us. He drove in there and either scored or he made some beautiful kick outs."
"JerShon did a great job of driving and kicking. As a team we did a great job of that tonight," echoed Lumpkin, the redshirt freshman who scored nine while going three-of-three on his threes. "We got a lot of open threes penetrating against their zone. A lot of guys got good looks. I was the beneficiary of that."
The `Cats benefitted also from the play of center Alex Olah, who finished with eight points and eight rebounds, and from a defense that limited the Panthers to 16-of-53 shooting overall (30.2 percent) and two-of-18 on its threes (11.1 percent). It was, then, an efficient opening night for them with contributions flowing in from varied sources.
Some 29 hours earlier, on Friday afternoon, Collins had said, "My main focus in every game we play, I don't want us to beat ourselves. And I want to play as hard if not harder than anybody we play." That would be the formula his `Cats followed through the first 16 minutes against Eastern, whom they then led by 18 after a Crawford three from the right corner. But now the Panthers started coming at them defensively and suddenly they were uncertain, struggling and not the team playing harder than its opponent.
Cobb had a three-pointer blocked, and then Crawford missed a three, and here Cobb dribbled, dribbled, dribbled away the clock before missing a forced shot down low. The `Cats were clearly out-of-sync now and they would remain this way through to the half's end, going one-of-10 in this stretch while missing a front end, committing three turnovers and seeing their lead cut down to four. "Their pressure bothered us. There's no question about it," Collins would later say of this stretch.
"I thought they turned up the heat with their pressure. They had us on our heels a little bit. They had us running our offense from out near half-court. Then I thought our guys were tentative with it. The adjustments we tried to make at halftime, once we were able to regroup, we just said, `Look, guys. If they're going to do that, you've got to attack them back. You can't be on your heels if a guy's going to attack you. You've got to rip through and you've got to drive the ball and you've got to make some plays.'"
Cobb certainly heeded that exhortation, getting five of his eight assists in the second half, and that was true too of Dave Sobolewski, who got himself to the line for eight free throws in the second half after attempting none in the first. That cleared up one of their only two hiccups to their evening, but the other was never fully remedied. That was the foul trouble they endured in a game mottled by 67 free throw attempts. (Three `Cats had four fouls at its end and three others had three.) "We fouled too much. We have to adjust," Collins later explained.
"We've been told this is how the games are going to be called. It's a little bit different from the past. They're trying to get away from some of the physicality. They want a little bit more freedom of movement. And as long as they're consistent, which for the most part I thought they were tonight, then we have to adjust. We have to play defense with our feet and not with our hands."
Still. Those are mere nits to pick and, in the end, this was a night of celebration for the `Cats, a night to celebrate the start of a season and the beginning of a head coaching career and the returns of guys (to use one of Collins's favorite words) like Crawford and Cobb and Lumpkin. So the final words will go to the estimable Crawford, who late on Saturday said, "It's great to get the first win of the season, and it's Coach Collins's first win. He's extremely energetic, so passionate about the game, about this team, about Northwestern.
"He cares so much about it. So to get that win and to celebrate in the locker room is a great feeling."
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