NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks back on the Northwestern men's basketball team's late comeback Monday night that led to a 74-68 home win over Texas State.
The 'Cats were scuffling and struggling and already down four, and now Texas State forward Corey Stern accepted a pass and threw down a two-handed dunk and grabbed the rim and celebrated by doing a pull-up. Immediately, he was hit with a technical. "I think it was major. That was major," Bill Carmody would say when asked of that call. "It quiets things down from a dunk, that momentum from a dunk, something positive and sometimes very emotional, to we're shooting fouls and (get) the ball."
"It was huge for us," added his point, Dave Sobolewski. "Just knowing we had a chance to get two free throws and have possession afterward was a nice mental boost for our group. That was definitely a big play for us."
"That," concluded guard Reggie Hearn, "would have been a big momentum play for them. But it kind of shifted it our way. It was a huge momentum shift for us."
This was Monday night at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where the 'Cats played for the first time this year without their senior star Drew Crawford. He is headed toward season-ending surgery on his damaged right shoulder, and now his minutes would be spread among guys like true freshman Kale Abrahamson and true freshman Sanjay Lumpkin and redshirt freshman Tre Demps.
Abrahamson, who got the start, would end this evening with nine points but only two rebounds in his 23 minutes. Demps, an explosive scorer, would get a dozen in 14 minutes before limping off with a twisted right ankle. Lumpkin would get little time, but the biggest point was made when Sobolewski was asked where the 'Cats would most miss Crawford. "Just his senior experience, his scoring and, defensively, his length and athleticism," he began, and then his response hit that point.
"I don't know if you guys can notice. The freshmen are still kind of trying to figure things out a little bit. There's a difference between when there's some freshmen in there and when there's only older guys in there. Obviously, it's great for them that they're getting these minutes. Soon enough you won't be able to tell the difference. So obviously we're going to miss Drew immensely throughout the year on both ends of the floor. But at the same time it's good for these young guys to get these minutes."
A 'Cat calling card this season has been their defense, which was allowing opponents an average of just 59.1 points-per-game as they took on Texas State. But in this one's opening 20 minutes, the Bobcats shredded it for 39. They were quicker to the basket, quicker around the basket, quicker overall, and when the first half ended they were up a pair. "They were scoring too easy," Sobolewski would say. "I don't know how many points in the paint they had. (It was 16 in the first half, 32 for the game.) But it was way too many. We just weren't defending as well as we needed to."
That defense tightened some early in the second half and now, in its first seven minutes, Abrahamson hit a three and Jared Swopshire hit a three and Hearn hit a three and Abrahamson it another three and Sobolewski hit a three that put the 'Cats up eight at 13:10. But here, in short order, Sobolewski picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench at 12:19; the 'Cat offense stagnated in his absence and put up just five points in the six-and-a-half minutes that he sat; and the Bobcats went up by four.
Sobolewski himself stanched the tide with a foul shot with just over five minutes remaining, and now the 'Cats switched from man and rolled out their 1-3-1 zone defense. On their first possession against it, the Bobcats' Stern got a layup. On their second possession against it, the Bobcats' Matt Staff turned the ball over. On their third possession against it, Stern accepted a pass and threw down a two-handed dunk and grabbed the rim and celebrated by doing a pull-up. "Our guys recognized, 'OK, we're back in this thing,'" Carmody would say, once more looking back to this moment. "Then some of the older guys took over."
Just 3:31 remained as Swopshire prepared to shoot the technicals with his team down six. This would not be a good evening for the 'Cats at the line, where they ended just 14-of-25, and so here it was no surprise that he made only one of his two. But on the court now were their older guys, and here these veterans showed the value of experience. First up was senior Alex Marcotullio. He drove hard and kicked to senior Hearn, who made both of his free throws after getting fouled. Next up was redshirt freshman center Mike Turner, who was on the court instead of true freshman center Alex Olah. He stripped Staff before the Bobcats could get off a shot.
Then it was the turn of grad student Swopshire. He delivered a beautiful backdoor pass to sophomore Sobolewski, who made both of his free throws after getting fouled. Now Swopshire rebounded a Staff miss and here, at 1:45, Sobolewski hit a deep three from the right side that put the 'Cats up a pair. This would be their only field goal in the game's last 11:32, yet it proved to be the proverbial dagger. For here Hearn followed it with a steal, which led to a pair of free throws by Marcotullio, which led to some panic by the Bobcats, who would go scoreless after Stern got slapped with his technical.
On a 12-0 run. That is how the 'Cats ended this game. That is how the 'Cats escaped with their six-point win.
Later, in the interview room, the absence of Crawford hung in the air, which was understandable. He had been the 'Cat ballast. But understandable too were the attitudes of the older guys on hand here. "I think everybody has to score more," said Hearn when asked if he felt he had to do that now. "He has 1,400 points over his career, this year he's averaging 14 a game. I personally am not going to start averaging 14 more points a game. So everybody has to step up."
"It's huge for us," said Sobolewski when asked about winning even with Crawford absent. "I told the guys coming in that even though Drew's not going to be able to play the rest of the year, we still have a lot to play for ourselves and every guy who comes in and takes his minutes is going to have to perform. I was telling Reggie sitting in the room over there (awaiting the press conference's start), that was a game that could have gone either way and we made some big defensive plays and some hustle plays and we made a couple shots down the stretch.
"So that's just a huge win for us moving forward."