March 7, 2014
NUsports.com Special Contributor Skip Myslenski looks back at the Northwestern men's basketball team's Senior Night defeat at the hands of Penn State on Thursday.
The horn sounds with 74 seconds remaining and now Aaron Liberman is entering the `Cats Thursday night game with Penn State. He is entering it as a replacement for Drew Crawford, the estimable senior who is soon exiting the Welsh-Ryan floor for the final time in his distinguished career. Then he is at his team's bench, where Chris Collins hugs him and taps him on the chest and leans in to offer some words. "The main thing I said to him is, first of all, that I've loved coaching him. And, secondly, I told him I don't want tonight to be indicative of what he's meant to this program and to this team this year," he will later recall.
"You're going to have games like this. It just so happened it's his last game and it's not a good feeling. I know no one's dying more than he is. I just told him, more than anything, hold your head high. He should. He's one of the great players to play in this program, and not only for the way he's played, but the way he's carried himself."
Now Crawford carries himself down the sideline, hugging JerShon Cobb, hugging Dave Sobolewski, hugging each of his teammates, and then he rests, sitting down with Cobb to his right and Kale Abrahamson to his left. He takes a drink, discards the cup, grabs a towel, wipes his face and finally, for long seconds that seem to stretch for an eternity, buries his face in that towel. "It was a tough moment," he will later recall, and then he pauses and fights back tears before concluding, "It's been a good career here at Northwestern and to finish on a note like this wasn't the best way to go out."
The `Cats, at this moment, are down 26, and soon enough they are 27-point losers and he is up and moving slowly through the traditional post-game line. When he reaches Pat Chambers, the Nittany Lion coach grabs Crawford's right hand with his own, drapes his left hand over Crawford's right shoulder and talks to him for long moments. "I just told Drew," he will later say, "he is one of my favorite players since I landed at Penn State. He's such a competitor. He's a tough matchup. He can beat you in so many different ways. Special kid. Really special kid."
"That means a lot. It means a lot because the Big Ten is such a tough conference," Crawford himself will later say of that moment. "So to have guys praise you and say good things about you, it's important to me and it does mean a lot."
A Hollywood screenwriter would have authored a different script for Senior Night, which opened with Crawford and Niko Cerina and James Montgomery III getting honored and roundly lauded. In his version the `Cats would win, and the latter two would contribute meaningfully, and Crawford would bathe in the spotlight and play a riveting solo and take a final star turn in the playpen he has graced for so long. But that was no movie that played out Thursday night. It was reality in its coldest and cruelest form. "Maybe we wanted it too much," Collins would later say, reflecting on his team's tepid performance. "Sometimes that happens on Senior Night because your emotions are running high."
"Tonight's tough," Chambers would echo. "I just went through this last game with (his star guard) Tim Frazier. Senior Nights are hard. They're hard. Everybody's emotional. Everybody's hugging, everybody's crying, families are here. I just said that to Chris. Senior Night's one of the hardest nights of the year."
This Thursday night was certainly a hard one for both the `Cats and Crawford, arguably the hardest they have mutually endured since they reconfigured themselves and went 5-2 through the second half of January. Both opened it promisingly enough and, with just over seven minutes gone, Crawford had five points and his team was down just one. But now, together, both it and he entered the Polar Vortex.
The `Cats, through the rest of this first half, would commit five turnovers and go 2-of-17 from the field and ext it down 17. Crawford, in turn, would score just one more point in the game and end it just 2-of-9 overall and 1-of-5 on his threes and 1-of-4 from the line. "They do a good job of really protecting their paint," he would later say of his struggles. "It's hard to find driving lanes because they're so compacted in there. Then they have great help defense, they help each other well. Anytime you get into the paint, there's guys digging for the ball."
"Penn State played very good defense, they played hard," echoed Collins. "But we did get some open shots and you've got to be able to make some shots. You've got to play good defense. But the game is still about scoring more points than your opponent. That's been a problem for us."
That problem was acute on this night even though center Alex Olah scored a game-high 14 while going 5-of-8 from the field. For the rest of the `Cats together would go just 5-of-35 (14.2 percent) and none of them would get close to double figures. "When you can't score, your defense gets effected by that. Mentally, it's tough," Collins would say, and so here there would be no cinematic magic, no Hoosiers' ending.
Instead the `Cats never rallied, never got closer than 20 in the second half, and the Nittany LIons never faltered, never let the `Cat offense escape the Vortex. That is why Drew Crawford would exit this game early, why he would later bury his face in a towel, why he would be forced to choke back tears while recalling his last exit from Welsh-Ryan.
That is also why Chris Collins was right on when he finally said, "Drew's been great. That's why I feel so badly. I wanted him to so badly go out playing really well in this building and to get a win. But sometimes that's where sports can be a little bit brutal."
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