Northwestern battled back against second-ranked Indiana in the second half on Sunday but came up a little short in the end. NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back.
The 'Cats have finally found a rhythm, and now they are down only five, and that playpen called Welsh-Ryan is alive and jumping and crackling with electricity. An upset is suddenly a real possibility, an upset of No. 2 Indiana, and here they set up in their 1-3-1 zone, which finds the 6-foot-1 point Dave Sobolewski under the basket. He is there now as Hoosier Cody Zeller makes his move and begins his drive, there as the center offers up a layup, there on the ground after the seven-footer barrels into him and sends him sprawling.
Immediately, the referee Ed Hightower blows his whistle.
The 'Cats knew exactly what was required of them entering their Sunday matinee with the powerful Hoosiers. They had to control the game's tempo and they did, regularly bleeding the shot clock to the end. They had to limit their turnovers and they did, finishing with only a half-dozen. They had to keep Indiana from running and they did, surrendering only three fast-break points. They had to quell Indiana's explosive offense and they did, holding it to a mere 67 points (18.4 below its season average). They had to trust their own offense and they did, rarely straying from it to go off on individual forays.
But to reach this moment when Hightower's whistle blew, to reach crucial moment when they were down only five with 6:20 remaining, they had been forced to climb a steeply-pitched mountain. They missed shots early, that was the reason, missed countless open shots through all of this game's first half. Jared Swopshire missed an open three just over three minutes in and then missed another a mere 32 seconds later. Sobolewski missed one more three some two minutes after that and on it went to half's end, which found the 'Cats seven-of-23 overall (30.4 percent), one-of-nine on threes (11.1 percent) and down 14 (31-17).
As Sobolewski and Zeller collect themselves and rise from the floor, Hightower makes his call. The Hoosier got his shot off before he collided with the point and so his basket is good. But he also did charge on the play and so the 'Cats will get a pair of free throws. "I really couldn't tell. But the officials, I really didn't have a problem with them," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody will say when asked about that call.
But was it a big call?
"Yeah. Very big."
"I think it was the right call," says Sobolewski himself. "He got the ball off before I stepped in there for the charge. So the call was fine."
The call also changes the momentum of the game for here is what happens now. Sobolewski makes one of his two free throws and the Hoosiers, after a miss late in the shot clock, get an offensive tip from Zeller to go up eight. Then Sobolewski misses a jumper from the foul line and, at 4:52, the Hoosiers go up 11 when Victor Oladipo buries a three from the left wing.
Zeller, the All-American, bedeviled the 'Cats throughout this afternoon. He scored 21 points while their centers, Alex Olah and Mike Turner, combined for only four. He grabbed 13 rebounds while that pair got but one. ("That's scary. They played 35 minutes and got one rebound. That's not acceptable," Carmody said of that reality.) Then, just as importantly, he ignored his 'Cat counterpart when he got the ball away from basket, stayed home to patrol the middle and defend the rim, and so prevented the 'Cats from turning to the backdoor layup when their outside shooting was so frigid.
"You have to take that away," Hoosier coach Tom Crean would later say of his team's defensive ploy. "They're not going to be in the midrange much. Today, they actually did get some midrange shots. I don't know how he coaches. I know what their results are and how they get their baskets and you never see them taking a lot of midrange shots. It's the cuts, it's the back cuts, it's the drives to the rim, it's the threes. We did a pretty good job on that."
They certainly did a good job of that in the first half, but early in the second Sobolewski dropped the three that signaled the 'Cats were frigid no longer. They would go five-of-10 from that distance in these 20 minutes, make enough from that distance to linger in the Hoosiers' shadow, and then finally--down 13 with 9:52 remaining--they caught a wave and rode it up to their heels.
Reggie Hearn, a a force and presence all game, began this journey with a pair of free throws and then Swopshire, revitalized, dropped a three from the left side. Now Zeller missed a dunk, and Olah converted a layup off a pass from Hearn, and Hearn made a free throw, and the 'Cats were down only five when Hightower blew his whistle.
Hearn, his 'Cats suddenly down 11 after that momentum-shifting whistle, steadies them with a jumper from just beyond the foul line and then, after a Hoosier basket, he draws a foul while taking a tough three. He drops all three of his free throws to cut their margin to eight at 3:24 and here, after a Zeller turnover, Swopshire hits a three from deep in the right corner and that margin is five at 2:31. Now Zeller makes a pair of free throws and Swopshire gets a backdoor layup off an Olah pass, Hoosier Jordan Hulls makes a tough runner and, at 1:17, Sobolewski offers up a three that can pull the 'Cats to within four. It looks sure, it looks true, it looks good. But it is long, and it caroms out off the back rim, and the Hoosiers grab the rebound, and the 'Cats start to foul, and the Hoosiers preserve their eight-point win by going seven-of-eight from the line.
"I think we had a chance there, a couple shots," Carmody will later lament. "Sobo had a nice one. I think we were down six (seven, actually) and he had a nice little three there that could have gotten us there (to within four). Then you don't know if they make foul shots. There wasn't quite enough pressure on them to see if they'd make them if they had to make them."
There is, in the cruel-and-real world of Big Ten basketball, no such thing as a moral victory. But this day was not a total loss for the 'Cats. "If we defend, we'll be OK," Sobolewski would explain when asked what they could take away from this game. "If we defend, our offense will figure itself out. We'll be OK on that end."
"I think," Carmody would finally say, "we're starting to get some kind of identity, who we are, how we play, how we're going to play to win. That's what every team has to do. It seems to me we're making some steps. They may be incremental in some ways, but I don't think so. I think we're getting better."