Dec. 19, 2009
NUsports.com special contributor Skip Myslenski gives his take on Northwestern's 70-62 victory over Stanford Saturday afternoon.
There is a not-uncertain honesty about 'Cat coach Bill Carmody and this is one reason he is to be admired. In a profession rife with slick suits and slicker speakers, he eschews self-aggrandizement and instead offers up opinions that are direct, unvarnished and unafraid of the truth.
This was especially clear late Saturday afternoon in the wake of his team's 70-62 win over Stanford. That pushed its record to a surprising 9-1 and marked the 'Cats' first victory over the Cardinal since Dec. 26, 1962. But it came only after they failed to take advantage of Stanford's foul trouble; and only after their once 10-point lead dwindled down to a mere one; and, most importantly, only after point Michael Thompson rose up and buried a cold-blooded three with them clinging to that lead with 1:23 remaining.
"We work on that play all the time," Thompson would later say, explaining his saving basket. "At that point, I wanted to get the ball inside to (forward) John Shurna, who was doing a great job scoring inside and out tonight. He got double-teamed, so he made the right pass and kicked it out to (center) Luka (Mirkovic) and my man went out there to help, so I was wide open. Luka made the right pass and got me the ball where I was comfortable shooting it. I just stepped up and made the shot."
"That was the key," Carmody said of that basket and he was correct for the reason he trotted out just a few heartbeats later.
"We were sort of playing not to win there at the end," he said here, displaying his honesty.
You mean not to lose, he was soon asked.
"Is that what you say? Not to lose? What's that expression? Yeah. That's what it is. We were just like walking on egg shells out there and there's still four minutes to go or something. They weren't good possessions. Even the shots were taken reluctantly."
Did that surprise him?
"Yeah. I told them, 'Fellas, this looks a lot like Purdue and Illinois last year (when they blew big leads before losing).' But this is a different team, and I felt this stuff was happening again. I wanted to put it right there to them ... I wanted to remind those guys. Four of them at the time were here last year. Hey. This is a different team ... It wasn't that guys weren't trying. But I think you've got to throw the ball in the post. I think guys were a little nervous, 'Maybe I shouldn't do that.' Just playing not with the aggression I think we needed ... We weren't moving as fast. We weren't cutting. It didn't seem like we normally played this year."
It certainly wasn't how they played through much of their affair with Stanford, which they attacked aggressively if not with great artistry. "I didn't think it was a pretty game," even Carmody admitted, but his 'Cats did pick up some floor burns, did drive the lane with alacrity and did befuddle the Cardinal with their 1-3-1 half-court trap.
They got a warrior's effort from Shurna, who finished with 22 points and eight rebounds while playing just seconds short of the full 40 minutes. But it was their approach that also served them so well and the reason they forced the Cardinal into 18 turnovers; the reason that one Cardinal starter fouled out and three others ended with four; the reason they were already in the double bonus with 12:33 remaining; and the reason they took 33 foul shots (they made 22) to the Cardinal 12.
That, too, was the reason they were up 10 and soaring with just 5:43 left, but right here is when they stalled and called up memories of last winter. First came a Drew Crawford miss on a three-point attempt and then came this. Thompson missing an impossible shot after driving into traffic. Crawford missing another three. Shurna missing one-more three and then, after the long rebound was corralled by Jeremy Nash, Thompson getting called for a charge.
Cardinal Jeremy Green hit a three after that last turnover, which pulled it to within one, and now Carmody called a timeout and called up his own memories. "He mentioned that last year's team, we didn't pull out a lot of those games. So not to be like that, play like that," remembered Shurna.
"He told us," said Thompson, "that it looked like we were playing on glass and we are playing on hardwood, so we had to go out there and play a lot harder and move a lot faster. Once he told us that, it lit a fire underneath us and we pulled it out."
Had they been conscious of using the clock?
"Yeah. I think we were a little bit conscious of it," said Thompson. "But at that point, we were just trying to slow it down. We tried to use the clock instead of get the best shot possible. I think at that point it slowed us down. We weren't moving through our offensive sets as fast as we normally do."
Did they ever think, "Oh, no. Here we go again"?
"That thought crossed my mind, but I didn't think too much of it," said Thompson. "At that point I was trying to slow the game down, run through some offensive sets. But I still felt comfortable and still felt we were in control."
They would, in fact, not regain control until Thompson himself drilled his major league three, and then the 'Cats finally closed out their win by making seven of their last eight free throw attempts. Now, only now, could they truly exhale, which is why Carmody was later asked if there was anything meaningful about his team rescuing a game it had nearly frittered away.
"I hope so. I'll talk to the guys about that," he said. "I don't want to have to say that anymore this year. This year's team is different. It's mature and it's been different. We played North Florida the other night and last year we might have beaten them by 12. We beat them by 30. I think we're better."
"We learned that getting that extra rebound or that extra defensive stop goes a long way as far as pulling out games," Thompson would finally say when asked the same question. "We just didn't want to resemble last year's team when we would have a nice comfortable team and let the game slip away."