For a moment, the fans celebrated. For a moment, you might have forgotten that the team was facing doormat opponent IUPUI. But even in this winning effort, the Wildcats looked more vulnerable than ever.
Northwestern escaped IUPUI 63-61 on Friday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, a clear regression from its solid performance against UIC two nights ago.
"It was not easy, in any sense of the word," Chris Collins said.
The final shot provided its own complications: Collins drew up a play – with the game tied – anticipating that IUPUI would fall into its man defense.
They went zone. Cobb was forced to adjust as he grabbed the ball with eight seconds remaining. He moved into the key, nailed the floater and IUPUI missed its desperation attempt.
"I was hoping to get my shot off [as] time expired," Cobb said. "But it worked out."
"He's our creator at the end of the clocks," Collins said. "He's our late game guy. He just made a play, a great play, and fortunately they missed."
Fortunately for Collins, Northwestern avoided suffering its second unacceptable non-conference loss. On Sunday, the Wildcats fell to Illinois State — showing similar offensive inconsistency as they did tonight.
IUPUI lost to Southeast Missouri State by eight in its most recent contest. Today, the Jaguars took an 11-point advantage with 10:18 remaining before assistant coach Patrick Baldwin intervened.
"We got down," Collins said. "And Baldwin said to me: ‘Coach, why don't we take a look at our zone?'"
In the final 10 minutes, IUPUI made just two field goals, and Collins found his ideal lineup with Cobb, Drew Crawford, Tre Demps, Alex Olah and Dave Sobolewski. That unit suffocated the Jaguars offense and led an emotional run.
Crawford scored all of his 12 points in the second half, including a put-back dunk that stretched NU's lead to three with 1:38 remaining. After IUPUI made three clutch free throws, the game rested on Cobb's floater — which saved the Wildcats from a disappointing loss.
"There's a lot of fight in our locker room," Collins said. "I can promise you we'll never quit. We hung in there."
He didn't deny the struggles: NU's improved defense allowed IUPUI to shoot 51 percent on the night. The Jaguars established their midrange game, all too easily, and overcame their size deficit.
Mitch Patton exposed Alex Olah's inconsistency, scoring 18 points and controlling the one-on-one matchup. Despite its bench going scoreless – and a 21-4 disadvantage on second chance points – IUPUI was carried by aggressive defense.
The NU backcourt of Cobb and Sobolewski combined to shoot just 6-for-24 on the night. Perhaps Sobolewski could get away with it; Cobb and Crawford's struggles greatly contributed to the early deficit.
"This team needs [me and Drew] to be scorers unless someone's having a great night," Cobb said. "We have to be the guys that score for this team. We weren't doing it."
After the game, Collins looked at the game statistics and called this an "outstanding win."
But the flaws overshadowed the comeback. Five games into his first season, Collins' team lacks some needed consistency. No pretty floater can hide that.