NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski offers up his look back at Thursday night's contest between Northwestern and No. 16/15 Ohio State at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
They had never led through a languid first half and now, just over a minute into the second, the 'Cats were down 11 to No. 16 Ohio State. They looked here like a contender whose knees had been buckled by a champ's quick flurry, yet they kept their feet and regained their balance and not only refused to go down. They also responded with a flurry of their own.
The first punch came from point Dave Sobolewski, who dropped a three from the left wing, and the second came from freshman forward Kale Abrahamson, who shot faked, got his defender in the air and drove the lane for a layup. Now came a Tre Demps three from the right wing, a Demps backdoor layup off a pass from center Alex Olah and a pair of Demps free throws that pulled the 'Cats to within two at 15:30.
They had been battered in their last three outings, losing each by at least 21, but they had fight in them yet on this Thursday night at Welsh-Ryan, where now it was suddenly game on. The Buckeyes would go up four, would go up six, but back came the 'Cats, taking their first lead of the night after a layup by Demps and a layup by Reggie Hearn and an off-balance, falling-away three by Abrahamson just before the shot clock expired.
"I liked the way we battled back, went ahead," Bill Carmody would later say, but now it was Ohio State's turn to do that and 88 seconds later they were up four. Yet again the 'Cats kept their feet, yet again the 'Cats regained their balance, yet again the 'Cats not only refused to go down. They also responded with another flurry of their own. First came an Abrahamson tip of an Olah miss. Next came a conventional three-point play from Olah. Then finally came a Hearn three from the left wing that pushed his team up one at 4:13.
When this one opened, everyone knew what the 'Cats must do if they hoped to succeed. They would have to start better than they had in their last three defeats. They would have to shoot better than they had in those defeats. They would have to run their offense better than they had in those defeats, and rebound better than they had all season.
This was asking a bunch from a group so battered by adversity for so long. But on this night they ignored the long odds against them and, from the start, offered a far different vision than they had over the previous 11 days. They did fall behind the Bucks by as much as 11 in the first half. "But," Sobolewski later said, "the good thing was we didn't let it spiral out of hand. We kept it under 10 and, whenever a game's under 10, you never know what might happen. We hit some big shots, we rebounded, we defended and just went from there. As long as we can keep it close, that's what we need to do at the start. We can't let it get out of hand like we have been."
They did trail the Bucks by seven at first half's end. But in their locker room, Carmody would recall, "We said we think if we stay with our stuff, we can get shots we want. It might be with eight seconds left, or 12 seconds (on the shot clock), but you're going to get some pretty good looks. We went with a couple pet plays (at the start of the second half), got some open looks, knocked them down."
They did get out-rebounded by the Bucks in the first half. But the margin was small, just 18-14. They did not shoot particularly well in the first half. But they dropped four of their 10 three-point attempts and that was enough to keep them close. They did not get much from the bottom part of their lineup in the first half. But--and this was not unimportant--that would change in the final 20 minutes.
Abrahamson was certainly transformed in those minutes, which he infused with energy, grit, all of his nine points and six of his game-high nine rebounds (three of them offensive, which was more than any Buckeye collected). Olah, too, was more active in the second half, and ended his night with nine points and five rebounds and a team-high four assists. Then always there were Demps (14 points) and Sobolewski (13), a pair with motors that roared through the night and never tired even as they played huge minutes (36 for Demps, 38 for Sobolewski). "A lot of different guys contributed, which was good to see," Carmody would later say.
It was a lot of guys, in fact, who helped push the 'Cats to their late one-point lead, but again Ohio State came back, this time with a three from Lenzelle Smith, Jr. Now the ball was in the hands of the 6-foot-4 Hearn, who was doubled by a pair of 6-foot-7 Buckeyes, and one of them, Sam Thompson, kicked it loose, and suddenly they were up four after a foul line jumper by Aaron Craft. One more time the 'Cats set up their offense and one more time they committed a turnover, Smith picking off a Demps' pass to Olah.
This one was not damaging, Thompson missing a pair of free throws in its wake. But then, for the third straight possession, the 'Cats turned it over, Scott Shannon stripping Olah from behind and feeding Thomas for the layup that pushed the Bucks' lead to six at 1:58. "Shannon Scott (who finished with four steals) was tremendous tonight," his coach, Thad Matta, would later say. "He was reading things, timing it up. We felt like we knew where they were going and that was probably the difference. We were able to turn them over 15 times (on the night)."
"Their defense," echoed Carmody, "anticipated some stuff, got steals and run outs. The steals weren't just steals and possessions, but steals and fast breaks or run outs at the other end. We just turned it over a few times at the wrong time."
Time, now, would finally run out on the 'Cats, who only now could not find a response. They were instead forced to foul and the Buckeyes made their free throws and eventually escaped with a misleading 10-point win. "We hadn't been playing competitive basketball, so it was certainly time," Carmody would later say when asked about his team's performance. "I think the effort's there and the guys are trying and I think they'll get better. It was good to see."
"It was a lot of fun to play in a competitive game, but that's not what we play for," Sobolewski soon concluded. "We come into every game trying to win and we didn't do that tonight. I think we played all right. We played a lot better tonight than we have been, which is nice. But we didn't win."