Northwestern, Penn State battle for Big Ten semifinal spot


It's hard to overstate how poorly Northwestern has fared in the Big Ten tournament since the league finally took the postseason plunge in 1998.

Through the tournament's first 25 iterations, the Wildcats have compiled a 10-25 record. They have qualified for the quarterfinals seven times and reached the semifinals just once - in 2017, leading to the school's lone NCAA Tournament appearance. They have never earned better than a No. 6 seed and have never secured a first-round bye.

But look at Northwestern now: The Wildcats (21-10) boast the Big Ten's No. 2 seed and the accompanying double bye that whisked them directly into Friday's third quarterfinal against No. 10 Penn State (20-12).

The Nittany Lions advanced with a 79-76 victory over No. 7 Illinois on Thursday night. In the only regular-season meeting between Northwestern and Penn State, the Nittany Lions claimed a 68-65 overtime victory March 1 in Evanston, Ill.; Cam Wynter drilled an open 3-pointer from the corner in the final second.

Chris Collins, voted the Big Ten's Coach of the Year, led the Wildcats to a school-record 12 conference wins and the school's first share of second place (or better) since 1959. Oh, and the Wildcats knocked off a No. 1 team for the first time when they rallied to edge Purdue on Feb. 12 at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

"It is a true testament to belief, to having confidence, resiliency," Collins told the Big Ten Network on Tuesday. "We've had a tough group of guys that didn't want to believe the narrative that was talked about them early in the season and before the season."

In preseason polls, Northwestern was pegged for 13th place in the Big Ten after losing leading scorer Pete Nance to North Carolina and top post player Ryan Young to Duke. But the Wildcats' four returning starters picked up the slack -- particularly senior point guard Boo Buie and senior shooting guard Chase Audige.

Buie (17.2 ppg, 4.5 apg) earned first-team all-Big Ten honors from the media and joined Audige (14.1 ppg, 2.4 spg) on the coaches' second team. Audige, meanwhile, shared the league's Defensive Player of the Year honors with Rutgers' Caleb McConnell.

They became the first Northwestern teammates to capture first- and second-team honors since Rick Lopossa and future Wildcats coach Rick Falk in 1963-64.

"Everybody else played their roles," Collins said. "And not only played in their roles but starred in their roles."

Penn State has been built similarly. Everything revolves around all-Big Ten guard Jalen Pickett (18.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 7.0 apg), who goes wherever he wants on the court and then either backs down a smaller defender or dishes to open shooters. Grad transfer Andrew Funk, the Big Ten leader with 97 3-pointers, drilled 6 of 9 from long range Thursday against Illinois.

While Northwestern likely has secured an NCAA Tournament berth, Penn State might still need to do work despite winning six of its last seven. The Nittany Lions started Thursday at No. 55 in the NET rating, but they'll rise after bouncing No. 33 Illinois for the third time this season.

"Our guys have been fighting," Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said. "The one thing we talked about is we've been playing tournament basketball for three weeks. It's been do-or-die. Every day has been so important.

"And these guys have just stepped to the plate and guarded, guarded, guarded. I'm so proud of these guys. I hope we've done enough, but we want to keep winning. We're having a lot of fun."

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