‘Cats scratch back: NU’s strategy shift before OT leads to another NCAA win

It wasn't just that no shots would fall for Northwestern in the closing minutes of Friday's NCAA Tournament game.

While their lead over Florida Atlantic slipped away, bad breaks began to consume the Wildcats.

Referees went to the video monitors to call a flagrant foul on Nick Martinelli with 3:21 left, then an inadvertent whistle seemed to cost Northwestern possession while they trailed by 2 with 27 seconds remaining.

“In every situation, I feel like you've just got to stay calm,” NU guard Ryan Langborg told reporters in Brooklyn. “We just stayed composed the whole time and made it easy.”

The Wildcats got the reset they needed when Brooks Barnhizer finished a driving lay in with 8.1 seconds left to tie the score. Then Langborg dominated in overtime and Northwestern advanced with a 77-65 victory.

Langborg scored 12 of his 27 points in overtime, but he already had a history of tournament success. Last year while playing for Princeton, Langborg scored 22 and 26 points in tournament games, while the Ivy League champs reached the Sweet 16.

Northwestern's Brooks Barnhizer (13) drives past Florida Atlantic's Brandon Weatherspoon (23) and Bryan Greenlee (4) during the second half of a first-round college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Friday, March 22, 2024, in New York. Northwestern won 77-65. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II) AP

Northwestern is facing a tough task Sunday against defending champ and top seed Connecticut. But with this result, the Big Ten improved to 3-0 in the NCAA tourney, 6-0 overall in the postseason. So maybe this will be the year when the Big Ten finally exceeds expectations.

Chris Collins' perfect record in NCAA first-round games appeared to be in grave danger late in the second half. Northwestern led by 9 with 6:43 remaining, then went ice cold after Boo Buie's layup made it 56-50 with 4:52 left.

The Wildcats led by 4 when FAU missed a shot and Buie raced back down the court. But the referees stopped play when Owls center Vladislav Goldin went to the ground, then assessed a flagrant foul after watching the replay.

It was a fair call. Martinelli hit Goldin in the head with an elbow, but the contact was clearly inadvertent. Martinelli was trying to stop the Florida Atlantic player driving to the basket when his free arm flew backward into Goldin.

“Our guys stayed poised,” Collins said. “We've got older guys that have been in these situations, playing in the Big Ten, being on the road, being in chaotic environments. We've seen it all throughout the years.”

Goldin hit both free throws after the flagrant call and the Owls eventually took a 58-56 lead with 1:04 left. Following the inadvertent whistle, Goldin missed the front end of a one-and-one to give Northwestern some life.

Another interesting storyline heading into this game was how Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May was coached in high school by Barnhizer's father Mark. When Barnhizer found the ball in his hands with time winding down, he made a heads-up play. The Owls were trying to deny Buie, so Barnhizer pump-faked Goldin into the air, drove past him and split two defenders for the tying layup.

“All it was was playing off my teammates,” Barnhizer said. “The biggest part is that Boo came down and got a stop on the other end.”

Langborg actually blocked the final shot attempt by FAU's Johnnell Davis. By forcing overtime, Northwestern got a chance to sit down and change strategies. The Cats had been trying to set high screens to create mismatches, but Florida Atlantic was jamming the screens, which helped cause the late-game dry spell.

So before overtime, Collins switched the plan to setting screens that would free Langborg for catch-and-shoot jumpers. To start OT, the San Diego native drained a pair from midrange and a 3-pointer. Northwestern scored on its first six possessions in the extra session and the game was over.

“As a shooter, when a guy gets going, you can see it in his eyes,” Collins said. “He was really hot. I kind of emptied my Langborg package with the playbook.”

This was another advantage for NU. Collins treats his team the way he wanted to be coached during his playing days at Duke and Glenbrook North. And he could take over games when his shot was falling.

“That's how I roll as a coach is if somebody has got it going, I'm going to ride that player,” he said. “That's what I wanted when I was a player and how people coached me. Especially when your season is on the line.”

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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