The Northwestern Wildcats earned their first win of the season in a 80-56 defensive showcase against the Eastern Illinois Panthers in the team’s season opener at Welsh Ryan Arena.
The Wildcats were able to control this game from the tip because of the energy they brought on defense. They held the Panthers to only 37% from the field and 30% from beyond the arc while also forcing 19 turnovers, 16 of which were steals.
The 16 steals were the most a Northwestern team has totaled in a game since December of 2007.
“Our activity on the defensive end, to get the 16 steals … I think that’s kind of a product of adding two high-energy wings in Casey (Simmons) and Julian (Roper II) on the perimeter,” Head Coach Chris Collins said postgame.
First-year guard Casey Simmons, a 6-foot-6 four-star recruit from Milton, Massachusetts, provided great defensive effort in his first career start Tuesday. Julian Roper II is another freshman with imposing size and strength that was plugged in seamlessly with this group. The freshmen played a combined 39 minutes and Roper II specifically was a menacing on-ball defender. He finished the night with three steals off the bench.
There were plenty of steals to go around on Tuesday though. Junior guard Boo Buie and junior forward Robbie Beran each ended the night with five steals apiece.
“I didn’t know he had five,” graduate student Elyjah Williams said of Buie in their postgame press conference. “Five steals isn’t normal.”
“Our coach preaches every time someone comes off a ball-screen we have to recover with our hands up,” Bouie said. “Having high hands on all my defensive possessions allowed me to get tips and make passes harder for the other team.”
The high hands Northwestern played with were paired with an aggressive coverage on pick and rolls. They guarded the screen and roll action by hedging hard on screens and relying on quick rotations to cover the roll man.
“It really caused some turnovers,” Collins said of their gameplan. “We had 16 steals and a lot of it was, it sped those guys up.”
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This game the coverage worked in their favor and resulted in some improbable numbers, but Collins also showed he is willing to change his gameplan up when necessary. After Eastern Illinois junior forward Rufino Bolis made two threes off of pick and pops, the Wildcats opted to change their on-ball screen coverage from a hard hedge to switching when Bolis was involved in the action. That change kept Bolis from having an even bigger second half.
“You can’t just have one pitch. If you’re a pitcher, you can’t just throw fastballs,” Collins said.
Northwestern will try to bring the same defensive energy when they host High Point University at Welsh Ryan Arena on Friday, Nov. 12 at 7 p.m. Central.
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