NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski offers a look back at the Northwestern men's basketball team's convincing 75-60 victory over Purdue on Saturday.
Dave Soboleweski delivered a three just 17 seconds in and then, 45 seconds later, Reggie Hearn hit a foul line jumper. Next up was Alex Olah, who dropped in a short hook from the left block, and now it was Hearn with a deep three from the left wing and Sobolewski with a backdoor layup off a Tre Demps' assist. Not even four minutes had passed here in the 'Cats Saturday matinee with Purdue, but already they were up 12-0 and on their way to a 15-point win.
The previous Saturday, out at Nebraska, Reggie Hearn struggled through a nightmare, ending that game with just six points while going two-of-11 overall and missing all five of his three-point attempts. Four days later, at Michigan, he was little better, going two-of-eight overall and one-of-three on his threes while collecting only seven points. Yet, as he prepared to meet the 'Cats, those poor performances meant little to the Boilermaker coach Matt Painter. "We told our guys, 'He can make shots,'" he would say after his team's defeat.
"We treated him as a big-time shooter. It might not have looked that way. But we treated him and Sobolewski as the two guys you don't want to leave and (let) shoot a rhythm shot. But whether it was a pin down off an out-of-bounds play, or whether it was a transition shot, or whether it was a piece of their offense, he (Hearn) was getting into a rhythm. You just can't allow that."
On the dais now are Bill Carmody and, to his left, Hearn and Sobolewski. "I've been hard on him for awhile now," the 'Cat coach is saying of the former. "I just told him to relax. You know. I told him I'd never say you were a walk-on again (which Hearn was at the start of his career). But I had to mention it yesterday, two days ago. I said, 'This should be the best time of your life. You're here, you're at a Big Ten school, you're getting a Northwestern degree, but you look sad. What're doing? Just go out there and play. You don't even have to listen to me. Just do what you do. That's good enough.' He did that today"--and here Carmody, the comedian, paused for a beat--"The not listening part."
That elicited chuckles from his listeners and a broad grin from Hearn, and now Carmody continued, "See that smile. It's important. He's a thoughtful guy. Sometimes smart guys think a little too much and you've just got to go out there and do what you've worked hard at for a long time."
And why wasn't he relaxed?
"I couldn't tell you," said Hearn himself. "Maybe I was pressing a little bit. There were times where I felt the last couple of games I wasn't finding my role in the offense and things like that. Like coach said, maybe I was just thinking a little bit too much. But today, I just kind of stayed within the offense and released it when I had my open shot."
Through all of Saturday's first half, both Hearn and that 'Cat offense were resplendent. They delivered an array of threes, and they converted backdoor layups, and they simply eviscerated a Boilermaker defense that found itself trapped in a revolving door. "I've always said this about Northwestern," Painter would later say. "If you can't defend them, it's like you have a flashing light on top of your head when you're out there playing. They just pick on you. At times in the past, we'd hide one guy who had that flashing light. But when you've got four or five guys out there with flashing lights, that's a difficult thing."
"We played well. The shots went in," said Carmody. "But they were good shots, shots that we practice off our offense. We knew their center would play off our center. So we really worked the last few days on taking one or two dribble pull-ups. We made a few of them. Like I said, we executed very well. There wasn't any tension on offense, that's how I would think about it. Guys weren't, 'What do I do?' There was a nice flow to it."
That flow would continue through all of this one's first 20 minutes and, when they ended, this was the result. Hearn had 21 points while going nine-of-10 overall and three-of-four on his threes, and the 'Cats had a 14-point lead after shooting 68 percent overall (17-of-25) and 66.7 percent on their threes (eight-of-12). "I don't know that my shot ever felt that good for an entire half," Hearn would later say, thinking back to his performance here.
"But, from the get go, I think coach mentioned, we knew their centers would drop off on the ball screens. So we were practicing that pull-up jumper the last couple practices. I got my first one to go in, my second one to go in, and after that you kind of get in a groove. It's really good to see your first shot go in. That really helped get me going."
Hearn would return to earth in the second half, tacking on just five more points, and that was true too of the 'Cat offense, whose shooting cooled off considerably. They would also be battered on the boards through the final 20 minutes, getting out-rebounded by 15, but here is why their lead never dipped below a dozen. They were tougher than a Boiler program that prides itself on that quality, they were more disciplined than a Boiler program that is built on that virtue, and they were unflustered when the Boilers even hinted at making a run.
That happened first with their lead at 21 and after an 80-second stretch that bordered the surreal. It went, in simplest terms, like this: A Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler three while 'Cat Alex Marcotullio was getting called for a foul under the basket. That gave the ball back to Purdue and now came a Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler layup with the chance for a conventional three-point play, a Boiler offensive rebound off the missed foul shot, a Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler miss, a Boiler offensive rebound, a Boiler layup, a missed layup by Olah and a Boiler layup that cut their deficit to 12.
Right here, with a little over 11 minutes remaining, the 'Cats were on their heels and looking endangered. But now, off a media timeout, Jared Swopshire calmly dropped a three from the right wing to steady them, and then it was Swopshire again some five minutes later. This time the 'Cats were in a lengthy scoring drought, and this time the Boilers had come back to within 14, and this time he hit a three from the left wing to bury any thoughts they had of a late rally. "We couldn't get stops to go with our runs," Painter would later lament, and then--not unimportantly--he added this.
"With all that I said before, obviously you talk about your own team, I thought Northwestern was great. Bill's done a great job. They were clicking on all cylinders today from an offensive standpoint. He didn't even have to go to his 1-3-1 defensively. I want to give those guys credit. They played a good game."
These final observations manifest well enough just how well that offense clicked this day. Hearn, Swopshire, Sobolewski and Demps all finished in double figures and Olah ended with nine. Then, even more significantly, the 'Cats had 24 assists on their 26 field goals. "That makes you feel good as a staff that guys are sharing the ball and doing the right things," Carmody would say of that last stat. "Everybody seemed to be on the same page on both offense and defense."
"When we have numbers like that, it's great for us," Sobolewski finally said. "It means we're flowing from one part of our offense to the next, that we're flowing through things quickly. I think we did a good job today scoring in the last 15 seconds of the shot clock. The last couple of games, when we got down to 15, we were kind of stagnant and weren't getting good shots. But today we stayed in our stuff and scored a lot of points as the shot clock was winding down."