At first glance, Northwestern looked fine.
The Wildcats clicked on offense and mounted an early 33-24 lead. As the first half drew to a close, though, coach Bill Carmody watched the lead wither away.
“We just let them hang around,” Carmody said. “They gained confidence.”
Just two games in, NU faced an early-season challenge in its 81-68 win. Mississippi Valley State played with impressive tenacity, as though it belonged in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
The final score hardly reflected the overall game, which was even until the final stretch. MVSU tied the game with less than ten minutes to play before sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski helped NU regain control.
Senior forward Jared Swopshire said despite the concerns, he expected the leadership to guide the team.
“We have a veteran backcourt. I knew that eventually, they would run out of gas,” Swopshire said. “We were able to make that run towards the end of the game.”
Given their absurdly difficult non-conference schedule, the Delta Devils looked the part of a team accustomed to playing strong opponents.
Davon Usher matched NU’s offensive firepower early and often. Usher knocked down 19 points in the first half. He was just getting started.
When MVSU easily could have wilted, Usher picked the team back up. On the night, he made seven-of-eight from behind the arc and finished with 35 points. Of course, NU expects to see fiercer competition in the coming weeks, and Usher may have helped them prepare.
Carmody called on Reggie Hearn to shut down the versatile forward. Hearn, one of the best players on the floor Wednesday, still admitted he needed a mightier individual defensive effort.
“There were a couple times I wasn’t there on the catch,” Hearn said. “It took me, unfortunately, 30 minutes to figure out that I needed to faceguard this kid.”
Carmody noted in situations like this, NU can forgo help defense if it means shutting down an elite scorer.
“When you let a guy out of the bag, it’s tough to put him back in,” Carmody said.
NU was forced to shore up its play without the help of senior forward Drew Crawford for much of the second half. Crawford picked up his fourth foul with 16:35 remaining. Freshman center Alex Olah picked up his fourth with 10:50 to go and did not return.
Rather than letting the game spiral, the Cats faced down adversity and closed the game, even with Crawford in a limited role. Sobolewski scored all of his 13 points in the second half – when the team needed it the most.
The MVSU game posed a stark contrast to the Texas Southern matchup. The Delta Devils managed to shoot 47 percent from the field, and in the process, challenged NU’s perimeter defense.
Carmody went as far as admitting the challenge was a good thing for his team, which is loaded with new players. MVSU broke them down, and for a moment, this game had upset potential.
The Cats held off the scare, but some of their flaws were exposed. With another battle upcoming on Sunday against Fairleigh-Dickinson, NU is prepared to put forth a better effort.
“The guys don’t feel good,” Carmody said. “There are a lot of things to work on.”
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