EVANSTON – For all the talk of defending Northwestern’s offense, it was the Wildcats’ defense, plus foul trouble, that kept Northern Illinois from seriously competing with Northwestern on Friday night.
NIU lost, 77-55, to the Wildcats at Welsh-Ryan Arena in the season-opener for both teams.
The Huskies (0-1) stuck with Northwestern (1-0) for the opening 10 minutes, trading the lead back-and-forth, but then the Wildcats switched to a high, trapping 1-3-1 zone that forced the Huskies to often start their offensive sets 35 feet from the basket and bottled up NIU’s guards.
“[The zone is] not really that big of a deal, it’s something we can work on,” said junior guard Xavier Silas, who made his regular-season debut for the Huskies and led NIU with 18 points.
“It’s the first time we’ve seen a zone like that. It’ll probably be the last time we see a zone like that. The reason they were in zone was because they couldn’t play us man-to-man.”
The result was a 12-1 run that took a 16-14 NIU lead and made it a 26-17 Northwestern lead. NIU also played most of the first half without starting center Sean Kowal, who picked up two fouls in the first four minutes.
“One of the things Northwestern has is great size and that’s what makes the 1-3-1 zone defense so effective,” said NIU coach Ricardo Patton. “It pushed our offense out towards halfcourt and makes our smaller guards have to try and pass over or around it.”
NIU actually started the second half on a tear, dumping the ball inside to Kowal for two easy buckets and going on a 10-3 run to cut the Northwestern lead to seven. But the junior center picked up two more fouls in the first five minutes and NIU couldn’t find its outside shooting to pick up the slack with Kowal on the bench in foul trouble.
Northwestern, who played the game without injured senior forward Kevin Coble, got to the free-throw line early and often, going 34 of 48.
Silas and Jake Anderson fouled out and Kowal and Mike DiNunno each finished the game with four fouls.
“The whistle wasn’t blowing our way today,” Kowal said. “I guess that’s the approach we have to take in every game we go to, especially in some of these bigger places. We’ve got to do that.”
Silas fouled out with 5:11 left after scoring 18 points. He injured his right hand at one point and the hand appeared bruised after the game.
“It’s not broke, it’s just on the soft tissue,” Silas said. “I guess it’s a bruise. I can’t really make a fist right now. Hopefully tomorrow.”
The Huskies shot only 13 of 26 from the free-throw line, including 7 of 14 from Silas, who said he didn’t want to use his injured hand as an excuse, but said “that’s not me” when asked about the free throws. Jeremy Nash led the Wildcats with 20 points.
Northern Illinois’ Big Ten road trip to open the season continues Tuesday with NIU’s first-ever game against Illinois. That game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m.