Most games are mottled with surges and lulls, with interludes of brilliance and interludes of drought, with displays of proficiency and displays of virtual paralysis. So it was Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the 'Cats rushed to a 15-point halftime lead over Nebraska and then frittered most all of that lead away.
They frittered it away first at the second half's start, which opened this way. Drew Crawford missing a running baby-hook and Reggie Hearn missing a put back, and a Husker layup. Hearn going one-of-two from the line, and another Husker layup. Alex Marcotullio missing a three, and a Husker three. Crawford missing an 18-footer, a 'Cat stop, Crawford missing a layup and Hearn missing a three, and a pair of Husker free throws. Dave Sobolewski missing a three, and a Husker three.
Now, less than four minutes into that second half, the 'Cats were up only four and confronting their first crucible of the evening. They didn't blink, here forcing a turnover and getting a three from Crawford and eventually building their lead back up to eight. But then, once again, the Huskers responded, and when the clocked ticked just below 11, their guard Brandon Richardson tipped away a pass John Shurna sent toward Crawford, collected it on the run and drove coast-to-coast for the layup that pulled them to within one.
Another crucible now confronted the 'Cats and this one looked even more dire than the first.
The three was the thing through this one's first 20 minutes and during them the 'Cats responded to their fans' shirts, those shirts that demand they "Make Shots." Hearn, from the right wing, hit the first one just 35 seconds into the game and then Marcotullio, a mere 43 seconds later, hit another that set the tone on how it would now go.
The 'Cats, in fact, would take 11 of their first 12 shots from out deep, and never would they stop that sniping from afar, ending this opening half 10-of-21 from beyond the arc. Shurna was three-of-five from that range and Crawford, two-of-three. Hearn was 1-of-2 from that range and Sobolewski (on five attempts) and Marcotullio (on six) each had a pair from there as well. "We knew they would play off guys on the weak side and sort of challenge Sobo and a few other guys to shoot the ball," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody said later when asked if he would have preferred a more balanced approach.
"I thought sometimes we were shooting a little too quickly, but when you get an open 20-footer at this level, you've got to make it. Which we did, so. That's what was there. If you drove, you had to throw it out to a guy. That's what you were going to get. You want to get what you want. But sometimes you've got to take what they give you."
"There's a handoff and a ball screen, bottom line, and we're going to chase it," said Husker coach Doc Sadler when asked about his team's vulnerability to the three. "We wanted to chase them. But we went underneath it, they stop, they shot it, they made 10 threes in the first half. It is what it is. You've got to make teams like that, in my opinion, they're averaging seven threes a game, we give 'em 14 (on the night). So. You know. On top of that, 50 percent (shooting on threes) almost.
"I don't know that they got a backdoor layup, did they? (The 'Cats did not.) The backdoor to Northwestern is like a dunk to other people, and I thought we did a great job from the backside, coming in there and taking away the lane. So we took that away. But you ought to be able to take both of them away, and it was in the ball screen that we messed up on and we never got it corrected for 40 minutes. We did not guard the ball screens correctly, so give them credit. They definitely attacked it."
But now, with just under 11 minutes remaining, it was his own Husker team that was on the attack and the 'Cats who were searching out a response. They, of course, had often found themselves in similar situations in the weeks just passed, had found themselves confronted by crucibles at home against Illinois and on the road at Michigan and again at home against Purdue. Each time they had failed to pass their test, falling by one to the Illini and by two in overtime to the Wolverines and by two to the Boilermakers, and so here they were facing not only a momentum-fueled foe. They also were facing a harsh reality of sport.
The reality, simply put, is this. When a team consistently wins close games, when it is familiar with consistent success, its mindset at moments like these centers on wondering just how it is going to pull out a victory this time. But when a team consistently loses close games, when it is familiar with consistently coming up just short, that mindset is less annealed and oft wonders just how it is going to screw it up here.
That was the other danger now threatening the 'Cats, but here they ignored their nightmares past, bowed their spines and retaliated. First there was Shurna, on a play designed to get him to the basket, finding his way blocked and kicking out to Crawford, who calmly dropped a three from up top. Then there was Davide Curletti, an energizer all night who also ended with eight assists, creating a turnover that resulted in a three offered by Sobolewski, who missed. But Shurna, even with his jersey clutched by Husker Brandon Ubel, put in a tip, got the call and completed the three-point play. "I was just trying to be aggressive, trying to get rebounds," he later said of this moment.
"There was an aggressiveness there that I liked," said Carmody. "I just saw that hand go up and tip it in. A lot of times you tip those things and you don't get them. But that was a big play. That was nice to see."
Nice too for the 'Cats was the defensive stop that followed, and now Hearn dropped a three that put them up 10 just 85 seconds after their lead had dwindled to one. "It's a good sign, guys coming through when they have to," Carmody would later say when looking back on those seconds. "Maybe you come out (with a big halftime lead) feeling, 'We'll just get through this.' A normal human element comes into play. So it was real nice, and it was three different guys who scored. It was nice all around."
"I think it really showed we were able to handle adversity," said Crawford. "Basketball is always a game of runs. Teams are going to maker their runs when they're down. So I think it was good. They made a great run, they were knocking down shots, and we were able to stay composed and get through it."
The Huskers, after some late (and uncharacteristic) turnovers by Sobolewski and Crawford, would claw back to within three at 1:33. But now, after those nine quick points, this game belonged to the 'Cats, who salted it away by making seven of 10 free in the final 51 seconds. (On the night, they would go 24 of 29 from the line.) Shurna would end with 28 points and Crawford with 21, but they also got 15 from Sobolewski and nine from Hearn and seven from Marcotullio and four from Curletti along with those eight assists. ("The other guys beside the two main dudes, what'd they get?" Husker coach Sadler later wondered, then he took a look at a stat sheet. "Seven threes. That's 21 points.)
"It's good to get a win," Carmody would say, his sense of relief palpable. "So little separates wins from losses, certainly the last few weeks with us, actually the whole conference. It's just incredible. So it's really nice to get the win. . .(and) now you have to move on. You win, you move on. You lose, you move on. So. Just happy."
"It felt really good to get this win especially considering we've had tough games this season when we weren't able to close out the game," Crawford finally said. "So I think it was really important for us to show ourselves we can close out games like this and come out with a victory. Hopefully, this will get us on a roll."