It was a stark tableau and it spoke volumes. There, three seats from the scorer's table, sat 'Cat assistant Tavaras Hardy, his face a blank mask as he scanned the box score he held in his right hand. Six seats to his right was the guard Reggie Hearn, his legs spread, his hands dangling between them, his eyes looking out and seeing nothing. Finally, two more seats down, was the forward Drew Crawford, his legs spread as well, his hands folded as if in prayer, his eyes glued to the ground even as his school's band exited right in front of him.
Each, in his misery, recalled Cervantes' Don Quixote, that Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance.
No loss is easy. But some, some, some just reach in and grab your entrails and rip them from you body, which is exactly what happened to the 'Cats Saturday when they fell to Purdue by two at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
They would, in this affair, commit 16 costly turnovers that led to 21 Boilermaker points, which is just the kind of malfeasance that normally dooms a team to a blowout defeat. But here they refused to let that happen.
They had also, on this afternoon, suffered a drought of near-biblical proportions, managing just one field goal and five points through the last eight minutes of the first half. That too was the kind of lapse that often leads to a lopsided affair, but here again they steeled themselves and kept the fray close.
Finally, against a team that goes deep into its bench, they had used Crawford for 39 minutes and point Dave Sobolewski for 39 as well and forward John Shurna for all but 9.8 seconds of the game's full 40 minutes. But never, never did any of the 'Cats waver or back off. "I was proud of the guys," their coach, Bill Carmody, would later say. "They were down most of the game it seemed, they kept coming back, get down again, come back. We defended pretty decently, and then it came down to the last shot and they made a nice play."
"I thought it was a very interesting game, a game where no one could get a good feel to put that stretch together to put the other team away," said Matt Painter, the Boilermaker coach. "Both teams just kind of hung in there and we were fortunate at the end."
The end began with Hearn and teammate Alex Marcotullio and Boilermaker star Robbie Hummel heaped on the floor in pursuit of a rebound, a rebound that Marcotullio finally controlled before quickly calling a timeout. "I thought we'd do a better job on the glass," Painter would later say. "Give Northwestern credit. The out rebounded us by 14 (37-23) and a lot of them were just hustle rebounds. I thought Northwestern was quicker to the ball, they got more long rebounds, they got more 50-50 balls. Normally, when that happens, you get beat."
But here, as the teams huddled with 55.7 seconds remaining, his Boilermakers were up two and Carmody was drawing up the play he hoped would bring the 'Cats even. It would go to Hearn, who soon beat D.J. Byrd down the left baseline for the layup that tied this one up at 56 with 41.9 seconds left. "I just got the first step on him and was able to finish," said Hearn, and so now it was Painter's turn to look for a play that could put his team back in front.
It would begin with it taking the ball out in the backcourt, where Terone Johnson would inbound to Lewis Jackson. Now Jackson brought it up against the 'Cats 1-3-1 zone, and probed that zone, played catch against that zone with Johnson, and finally, with the shot clock running down, Jackson penetrated that zone and nearly lost his balance at the foul line and somehow shoveled a pass to Hummel deep down the left baseline.
Four days earlier, in his team's two-point loss at home to Michigan, Hummel had missed an open three with 9.5 seconds remaining that would have rescued that game for the Boilermakers. But here, with the shot clock at two and Sobolewski scrambling to close on him, he rose and calmly dropped a 15-footer. "In that 1-3-1, I don't think we were dictating anything. I don't think it had anything to do with coaching," Painter would admit when asked about this play.
"We were struggling with it. We might not having been turning it over much. But we were struggling to get a good shot against their 1-3-1 and we were fortunate Lewis got enough penetration to draw the defense and Rob could get the catch and beat the guy off the close out. Obviously, anytime you have a guy like Hummel, you want the ball in their hands to make a decision or make a shot. He made a good decision."
Crawford, off his nightmare up in Minnesota, had been brilliant throughout this game, which he would end with 23 points and eight rebounds while going nine-of-16 overall and four-of-seven on threes. So now, with 8.1 seconds remaining and his team down two, Carmody designed a play that would get the ball into his hands. "Just trying to get it up the court," he would explain, "flash Drew into the top of the key area, throw it to him, then we had a screen down the other side for Shurna and Al (Marcotullio) was in the corner. There was also the drive possibility depending on where guys were."
"We wanted to switch on everything," said Painter, explaining what was then being discussed in his team's huddle. "The last thing we wanted them to do was shoot a three and beat us. We wanted to switch all hand offs, switch all ball screens, switch any screens. They had eight seconds, had to go full court, that's a difficult thing to do."
But the 'Cat tried to do it, Marcotullio inbounding to Sobolewski, Sobolewski rushing the ball up the court under pressure from Jackson, Sobolewski getting stymied at the top of the arc, where Crawford was draped by Boilermakers, Sobolewski finally kicking it right to Shurna, who was a good 35 feet from the basket. But he had no choice, he had to offer, and up he went for the three that would win this one for the 'Cats, but it was wide left and never touched the rim.
"The play just didn't work out the way we drew it up because of the pressure," Crawford would later say. "So I wasn't able to get open and Dave wasn't able to make the pass."
"There was too much pressure from Jackson for Sobo to make that pass (to Crawford)," echoed Carmody. "So we didn't get what we intended. We didn't get what we wanted. The time before that, we came out of a time out, we got exactly what we wanted (Hearn's tying layup). Sometimes you get it, sometimes you don't get it."
"We were lucky," Painter finally said. "We were fortunate they didn't get a quality shot."
For long minutes Crawford and Hearn remain in their court side seats, each lost in his private world and ignoring all that is around him. The band disappears, the fans evaporate, Carmody does his post-game radio show and still they linger, occasionally now exchanging some quiet words. "It hurts to lose. It definitely hurts to lose, and we've been in this position it seems for a few weeks now," Crawford will later say.
"But. We're just going to watch the film, try to learn from it and move on, like you do with every loss. I know next game we're going to come out hungry."