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Northwestern’s defense shines again in upset of Indiana

Northwestern coach Chris Collins high-fives Alex Olah who anchored Wildcats’ defense with six blocks. He also altered nearly every shot

Northwestern coach Chris Collins high-fives Alex Olah, who anchored the Wildcats’ defense with six blocks. He also altered nearly every shot he faced. | Darron Cummings/AP

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Updated: February 20, 2014 6:56AM

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Chris Collins didn’t need to assume responsibility for every failing with this Northwestern team. The first-year coach inherited a roster full of players who likely wouldn’t have been recruited by the rest of the conference.

Asked about the team’s struggles through the nonconference slate, Collins sought reasons to blame himself. Placing accountability seemed like an unnecessary exercise.

Until Saturday, when Northwestern beat Indiana 54-47. It became clear that Collins’ attitude helped him shape this roster into his team.

“He’s always said from Day 1 that he’s got our back. As long as we’re fighting, he’s always got our back,” guard Tre Demps said. “And I love Coach.”

Collins said that to his team after it lost 93-67 at Iowa, its third consecutive loss by more than 20 points. He said to salvage the season, the players had to change the way they played.

So knowing that points were hard to come by, they focused on playing suffocating defense that allows few, if any, clean looks in the paint.

The result: Northwestern (9-10, 2-4 Big Ten) has won two of its last three games, including beating then 23rd-ranked Illinois at home last Sunday.

The Wildcats have done all this without point guard Dave Sobolewski, who suffered a concussion in practice Jan. 11 and has missed the last three games. Collins said that even when Sobolewski returns, he won’t return to the starting lineup if Northwestern keeps winning.

On Saturday, Northwestern limited Indiana to eight points in the first 17 minutes. The Hoosiers scored 11 points in the final three minutes of the first half to cut the Wildcats’ lead to three at the break.

But that would be Northwestern’s only lapse on defense. Indiana (12-6, 2-3) finished the game shooting 25 percent from the field. Wildcats center Alex Olah anchored the defense, blocking six shots and altering the look of nearly every shot near the basket.

“The guys kind of liked the formula, and they kind of liked being this spunky team, this scrappy team,” Collins said. “And it’s becoming our identity. It just makes me so proud that that’s my team doing that.”

And playing that way can buy anyone on the roster playing time. The streaky Demps scored just two points through the first 33 minutes of the game. But Collins stayed with his energetic sixth man because of his commitment to other aspects of his game. Collins was rewarded.

Demps scored 13 points in the final 6:31, giving Northwestern a much needed boost with the team struggling from the field.

“I’m an instinctive guy,” Collins said. “I’m a gut-feel guy, and all I know is my guys were fighting for 40 minutes, and that made me proud.


Twitter: @SethGruen

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