NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks back at a memorable and emotional night that resulted in a 68-57 Northwestern win over Minnesota in the Wildcats' regular-season finale.
Now it was time for Michael Thompson and here he came, flanked by his parents, walking slowly into the place he had graced for so long. Cheers washed over him, heartfelt cheers acclaiming his admirable four-year run as the 'Cat point, and here, as they washed over him on his journey to center court, he breathed deeply and exhaled, breathed deeply and exhaled, breathed deeply and exhaled like a man in desperate search of fresh air.
This was Wednesday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where Thompson would soon face Minnesota in the final home game of his career, and now he was accepting a framed jersey and holding it high above his head for all the crowd to see. Slowly he turned, displaying it to each side of his long-time playpen, and then he walked over to a line that already included Jeff Ryan and Ivan Peljusic and Mike Capocci, the seniors who had been honored before him.
"I've been giving it a lot of thought," he had said of this moment some 24 hours earlier. "I don't know exactly what to think, whether I should be sad or happy. But for the most part, I'm sad. It's been a lot of fun and you definitely don't want it to end. It seems like yesterday (that he got to Northwestern). I've been here a long time, you know, but it went by so fast. I'm sad that it's coming to an end, but I'm happy for the experience I've had here."
"I was a little weepy," he would say of this moment later on this
Wednesday evening. "Not as weepy as I thought I'd be. I thought I did a
good job of holding it in. But some tears came out. It was very
Emotion, in fact, had all the 'Cats in its headlock, and they could operate only in fits and starts through the first half of their game with the Gophers. They missed eight of their first nine three-point attempts and Thompson himself went scoreless until he dropped a three with nearly 10 minutes gone. That would be his only field goal through these 20 minutes, which he ended one-of-eight, and near their end he even tossed up a three that absolutely touched nothing.
"We told the guys it's going to be emotional, the first five, six minutes of the half it's going to be a little rough because of the emotion of Senior Night," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody would later say. "It was about 25 minutes it was a little rough. It just seemed out of sync on offense.
"I know we had some nice looks in the first half for a bunch of guys. (Michael) Thompson, toward the end of the first half, we ran a little play, either he or (John) Shurna's going to get a shot, he was wide open and he missed it by, I'd never seen him miss a shot like that. An air ball. I mean, really an air ball. I don't know whether it was the emotion, the focus, our heads weren't really right there."
"I," Thompson said more succinctly, "definitely let my emotions get the best of me in the first half."
Bill Carmody is reminiscing about his years with Michael Thompson, talking of his growth and his leadership and the variety of his skills. Then, after acknowledging these familiar virtues, he says, "And everytime I see him, he's got that big smile. He picks me up. You know it's a two-way street. They talk about coaches have to motivate players. But players, you know, he'll come over, he's got a bounce to his step, he walks on his toes, he'll grab a ball and it turns me on. So that's good. He's got a great sense of humor. A great sense of humor. When he walks out there, like I say, he turns you on. He picks you up."
"My favorite Juice story? There's so many," the swingman Drew Crawford later says when asked for an example of this side of Thompson, and then he sighs.
"I've got to think," he now says, and here he pauses.
"(Center) Davide Curletti's got some big boots we like to make fun of," he finally says. "We call them hiking boots. We say he's trying to climb Mt. Everest. Juice was walking around the locker room with the big old boots on looking pretty funny. He's a practical joker. He's one of the goofiest kids I know. When it comes down to business, he's serious. But when he's with us, he's just fun to be around."
"I looked terrible," Thompson will say when asked of that moment. "He wears like a size 13 and I wear a ten-and-a-half. They're high tops, maybe 12 inches high. So they covered pretty much all of my legs. My brother had come to cut our hair that day, so I had that little cape thing on. So I just looked really weird. It was like a terrible Halloween costume. It's on Facebook. It's a pretty funny picture. I got a lot of heat from everybody on the team. It was pretty funny for everybody. It was just me being silly."
Does he like silliness?
"Definitely. I think that's a good thing and it's pretty much what our team is. We have fun together and share a lot of laughs. It's just been a great experience."
There was something serendipitous, then, about Wednesday night's first 20 minutes, which Curletti ended with a team-high 10 points. He, quite simply, was the best of the 'Cats through this half and the reason they went to their locker room down only a half-dozen. "We," he later said, "have such great guards and forwards and they kind of got into a rut where they weren't shooting so well. So Luka (Mirkovic, the other 'Cat center) and I decided it was time for us to step up and start getting some easy hoops inside."
Yet the 'Cats still struggled as this Senior Night rounded the turn, and here the second half opened with Shurna getting stuffed and with Curletti and Shurna and Shurna again and Thompson missing consecutive three-point attempts. "Then," remembered Carmody, "I think it was after the first time out in the second half that (Michael) Thompson said 'Fellas, it's Senior Night. I only have two points.' Everyone cracked up. The players were a little tight playing, the coaching staff also."
"I don't recall saying that," Thompson himself would say.
Bill said it loosened the team up.
"I guess," said Thompson, a quizzical look on his face. "But I'm not one to care about my points or anything as long as we win. But I don't remember saying that."
Did Alex Marcotullio remember him saying that?
"He said something, but it was nothing like that," he replied. "I don't think it had anything to do with scoring points."
"But," Thompson finally said, "it's something that got us loose."
That timeout came with the 'Cats down eight at 15:59 and, no matter what was said, its effect was not immediate. For here the Gophers' lead grew to 10, which is where it stood when Thompson dropped a three from the right wing at 12:55. The 'Cats would commit just two turnovers in the second half after committing seven in the first. That was one reason why this game turned. They would hold their own on the boards and get out rebounded by only two. That was another. They converted 20 of their 23 free throw attempts while the Gophers were just eight-of-11 from the line. That was a third.
But the true pivot of this affair was that shot by Thompson and here is why. Before it they were 3-of-20 on their threes. But now, from this moment to game's end, they would go seven-of-10. Shurna would get two of them and Marcotullio would get two of them and Thompson would get three of them, the last coming at 2:30 to put his team up nine. This trio was as bright as a Mensa member as the game roared to its conclusion and when it finally ended, ended in an 11-point 'Cat win, they had scored all but two of their final 26 points (those came, appropriately enough, on a pair of Curletti free throws).
"They hit their threes when we went under. A couple of our guys, you've got to follow the script," Minnesota coach Tubby Smith later groused. "You've got to do it every time. We say go over the screens instead of go under it. If you go under it, those guys are going to make those shots. They're going to make those step back-threes. That's their game. We did a good job in the first half defending the threes and we did a poor job in the second half."
"We," said Carmody, "basically went to one play for the last eight minutes and it was pretty basic. But a lot of screens in there and our guys took advantage of them."
And what was the name of the play?
"JV. Even a JV player can learn it. It's not complicated. But you still have to bang a long shot and our guys did that."
Thompson, so caught in the headlock of emotion, started his Senior Night one-of-nine overall, one-of-five on his threes and without a trip to the free throw line. But then, freed from that icy grip for its last 13 minutes, he closed it out going three-of-six overall, three-of-four on his threes and six-of-six from the free throw line. "A lot of guys have bad halves," Bill Carmody would finally say with a look back at those numbers.
"It takes a special guy to have a bad half and then come back with the second half he had."