NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski takes a look back at the Northwestern men's basketball team's Senior Night matchup against Penn State on Thursday.
Alex Marcotullio will serve as the symbol for the 'Cats Thursday loss to Penn State. This was Senior Night, his final appearance at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and through so much of the evening he shone brilliantly. He put in 34 minutes, the most he has played in any game over the last two seasons. He dropped six of his nine field goal attempts, all of them threes, went four-of-four from the line, and ended his display with a game-high and a career-high 22 points. He, most memorably catalyzed his team in the belly of this affair's second half, hitting five-of-his-six shots in this span and carrying it from 12 down to one up in just over eight minutes.
But there were also his five turnovers, one of them late and fatal to the 'Cats chances. "It's about time something started going in," he said later when asked about his 66.6 percent shooting. "I've struggled all year and it was nice seeing some go through the basket. But too many turnovers. I think that was the deciding factor in the game. Those are possessions lost and points lost. I blame myself. What did I have? Five? That's crazy."
That was just the kind of night it was for the 'Cats, who were an inconsistent mix of good and bad. Once again they started poorly, falling behind by a dozen after committing five turnovers and missing all four of their shots in the game's first five minutes. "We knew they were going to press, a little three-quarter court press, and I just thought we were careless," Bill Carmody would say of the Nittany Lion tactic that bedeviled his team through this stretch. "We were throwing the ball to trapping spots right over half-court, which you don't want to do without moving the ball from side-to-side first. Give them credit. But I thought there was a little combination of that (Senior Night) emotion and a little carelessness."
"We just didn't handle it well," echoed the senior guard Reggie Hearn. "We knew they were going to play that 1-2-2 trap and we didn't execute as we had in practice. We were careless with the ball."
Still, starting with a three from the freshman Kale Abrahamson, they willfully began to scale this hole they had dug for themselves, and just three minutes later they were back to within one after Marcotullio hit the first of his half-dozen threes. But now, on consecutive possessions, came a turnover by Hearn, a turnover by center Mike Turner, a turnover by point Dave Sobolewski, and like that were were back down by seven. Now again they stirred themselves, forging a tie at 26 less than four minutes later, yet here they floundered once more and found themselves down four as this first half finally ended.
"First half I could see. There was emotion to senior night. The second half, it wasn't good," Carmody would later say, and this is why. His team started that half as poorly as it had the game and, with just over five minutes of it gone, the 'Cats were again down a dozen.
The first one came from just this side of his team's bench and pulled the 'Cats to within nine at 14:32. The next, after a miss, was straight on and came less then two minutes later. Suddenly they were within five and Alex Marcotullio was afire, and here one came from the right wing and another from the right corner and the final one from the left corner that put his team up a point at 6:15. Now Nittany Lion guard D.J. Newbill was called for an offensive foul and here, with the ball, the 'Cats turned to Hearn. "We ran a nice, little cut. Reggie had a nice cut," Carmody would later recall. "The ball was delivered a little late by our center, he bobbled it, didn't get (the layup), they came down and scored. From then, we were never again able to quite get over the hump."
From then, in fact, from that moment of Marcotullio's final three, the 'Cats were never able to find the basket, missing their next 10 field goal attempts before getting a meaningless layup from Tre Demps with four seconds remaining. Their defense buckled through this stretch as well, the Nittany Lions successfully attacking their zone down low, but still, still, their deficit was only six as Marcotullio handled the ball in front of his team's bench. Another three from him would halve that margin, but here he offered a pass to Sobolewski in the right corner that was picked by Newbill with 1:18 remaining. "We were trying to get a quick look for me, I guess," Marcotullio later explained. "I up faked and I thought the guy was going to run at me. He made a nice play and stuck in the passing lane."
Earlier, after he had fouled out with his team down four and 3:07 remaining, Reggie Hearn was accompanied by a standing ovation as he walked slowly to the bench for the last time at Welsh-Ryan. "I was a little (teed) off, so I didn't give it a whole lot of credence to it," he would later say when asked about that moment. "I heard it in the back of my head and it felt good. But at that point. . .I was thinking of how we could pull it out. I'm sure I would have appreciated it more if I'd been going out on a good note and I'm sure it'll sink in after the game now and I'll appreciate what the fans did for me. But at the time, I was (teed) off."
Now, after his turnover, the 'Cats began fouling and the Nittany Lions made their free throws and the game was lost, and so here Omar Jimenez replaced him and Alex Marcotullio also received a standing ovation as he made his own last walk to the Welsh-Ryan bench with 10 seconds remaining. "It hurts. I wanted to go out on top here and sadly that's not the case," he would soon say. "But I left everything out there, and so did Reg and everyone else. I'm just happy to be part of this great program and university."