NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks back on the second win over a ranked opponent in a seven-day span for the Northwestern men's basketball team which defeated No. 12/14 Minnesota on Wednesday.
Last Sunday afternoon, even after his team fell to then-No. 2 Indiana, 'Cat coach Bill Carmody declared that it was making progress, that it was forming an identity, that it was learning how it must play to win. Late Wednesday evening, after it had upset No. 12 Minnesota, we wondered just how that was. "It starts with our defense. Our defense has really been able to generate offense for us," said the forward Jared Swopshire. "Then offensively, playing at the pace we want to play at."
Guard Reggie Hearn, who was sitting next to him, now echoed those thoughts, but then--not insignificantly--he added this. "It's overall being a scrappy team that doesn't go away, a team that other teams don't want to play," he added.
Moments later it was Gopher coach Tubby Smith who was behind the microphone and, when was asked about that scrappiness, his blunt answer not only sharply defined the difference between the two teams that had just faced off. It also described the foundation of the upset the 'Cats had so recently authored. "They always play hard. They're going to go after you. They're going to scratch and claw and be physical," he began. "If you're not careful, they'll get you out of your game.
"Then you start complaining. That doesn't help anything. There's no excuses. But we have a tendency to take ourselves out of the game with our attitude. 'They're hitting me.' 'We're being pushed.'. . . You start complaining about something. Maybe somebody didn't do something. When you're losing, people point the finger. That's the way it starts. Instead of, it's my fault, you look at the ref, you look at the coach, someone's not doing something. That's what losers do."
The 'Cats, even in defeat, have never looked like losers. Their offense may have struggled. Their shots may have failed to fall. Their roster may have been depleted by injury. Even their effort may have wavered on occasion. But always they have remained a cohesive whole, a virtue that was much displayed on this evening when any number of them took star turns.
There was Swopshire, a bit player when he was at Louisville. He kept them in the game early with his shooting, continually jousted with the taller Gophs on the board and ended his 39 minutes of work with 16 points and eight rebounds and a pair of steals. "You know, he was a role player at Louisville and a good one," Carmody would later say of him. "So it's been hard for him-- from day one we've been telling him to be aggressive. You have to do more here. He can dribble, he can pass, he shoots, rebounds. But you can't just be one of the guys. You have to be a little more than that. I think he's recognizing that. I think he's playing batter and better because he's recognizing what's expected of him here."
Has that been a hard adjustment, we wondered.
"It hasn't been that tough," said Swopshire, a small smile decorating his face. "I wasn't a role player before college, so it's kind of getting back to old habits, I guess."
There was Hearn, who ended with 13 points and five rebounds and two steals and a block, and the point Dave Sobolewski, who not only finished with five points and five rebounds and five assists and two steals. He also finished with no turnovers in his 37 minutes of choreography. There was the guard Tre Demps, who chipped in 10 points and buried a monster three during the run that won this one for the 'Cats, and there was the guard Alex Marcotullio, who not only made half of his four three-point attempts. He also picked up three steals while catalyzing the 1-3-1 zone that so baffled the Gophs. "Al has always been great at the top," Hearn would say of him.
"He's always creating havoc and getting steals and getting his hands on balls, which led to some fast break points for us tonight. As you guys know, that isn't really our forte. But it was big for us tonight and Alex was the spark that made the 1-3-1 go."
There were some glaring anomalies on the stat sheet handed out after this game. The Gophs had 20 offensive rebounds to only 10 by the 'Cats, which looks fatal. Yet the 'Cats ended with 12 second-chance points to only 10 by the Gophs. The Gophs also ended with eight blocks, which would indicate the 'Cats could do no work inside. Yet they ended with 20 points in the paint, the same as the Gophs. The 'Cats also survived despite some horrendous foul shooting (they finished just 17-of-32 from the line) and succeeded despite making only four of their dozen three-point attempts (they entered averaging 8.1 makes on 21.7 attempts).
But then there were these numbers that hinted at the reasons for their success. They had nine steals. They turned the Gophs over 15 times. They held the Gophs to 33.3 percent shooting overall and 26.3 percent on their threes. And they allowed the Gophs not a single, fast-break point. As Swopshire would say, "It starts with our defense."
The 'Cats trailed by seven with 15 minutes remaining. But now, in quick order, Swopshire dropped in an eight-footer after grabbing an offensive rebound, the Gophs missed a three, Marcotullio made a three and the 'Cats rolled out their 1-3-1. "It helped us a lot. It forced some turnovers, and I think that sort of made them a little flat-footed," Carmody would later say.
"I think they were frustrated with the 1-3-1," said Hearn. "They couldn't seem to figure it out and they resorted to trying to beat us up on the boards, like they'd done in the first half. But thanks to Swop, we didn't allow that in the second half."
"They do a good job in their 1-3-1," said Smith. "It's just, I'm disappointed we didn't get better. We didn't play very smart."
His Gophs didn't play smart, and the 'Cats played like Mensa members, and now--with the 'Cats down five with 13 minutes remaining--this is what occurred. A steal by Swopshire that led to no points. A steal by Marcotullio that led to a Hearn layup off a Sobolewski feed. Another steal by Marcotullio that led to another Hearn layup and a foul shot off another Sobolewski feed that tied the game at 37. A Goph dunk behind the zone. A missed three by Swosphire. A Goph turnover. A Marcotullio three that put the 'Cats up one, a score that wouldn't change for two minutes. A Demps' three off a cross-court pass from Sobolweski as the shot clock neared zero. A missed Goph jumper. A pair of free throws by Demps.
That is what occurred in just under seven minutes and, when this interlude ended, these were the numbers. The 'Cats had turned the Gophs over four times. The 'Cats had held the Gophs to one-of-six shooting. The 'Cats had outscored the Gophs, 13-2. The 'Cats had gone from five down to six up.
The Gophs would linger through this game's last six minutes. But never again would their deficit be less than four. The 'Cats would continue to struggle at the line. But never would they lose that cohesiveness that has defined them this season. The Gophs would never exhibit any cohesiveness this night, which Smith alluded to again while explicating the work of the zone that undid his team. "We played from sideline to sideline instead of attacking the basket," he disconsolately said here. "They did a good job of making us pass around them, and they were aggressive on the ball. I think that's what makes them so effective, they really get in those passing lanes. If you're not patient; or if you're throwing up quick shots, which we did; or if you turn it over, which we did, it's going to lead to easy baskets. It's real demoralizing when you turn the ball over."
But the 'Cats, that (to quote Hearn) scrappy team that doesn't go away, was never demoralized, which Carmody made clear when he finally said this. "That zone made the difference, all right," he finally said. "We got out and we just felt confident that we could stop them, and that helps our offense all the time."