EVANSTON, Ill. – Even if you don’t like Northwestern, you have to feel for Northwestern.
Its history is defined by disappointments. The Wildcats’ luck goes like this -- even though they’re as good as they’ve ever been this season, the Big Ten is as loaded as it has ever been, and Northwestern, as per usual, remains toward the bottom in the conference's standings.
It’s a program that the NCAA tournament has forever eluded. The talk surrounding the team every season, especially recently, is of optimism that this could be the year it finally makes it to the tournament, and every season they’re on the outside looking in. Instead, they celebrate NIT tournament appearance banners.
The Wildcats work as hard as anyone. They prepare as well as anyone. But in the end, they always seem to fall short of everyone.
Saturday’s 58-57 loss to No. 1 Ohio State was another chapter in that book of disappointment.
There was no reason Northwestern should have even had a chance against the Buckeyes on Saturday, and it would have likely been less heartbreaking for the Wildcats if they had been beaten badly.
For one, the Wildcats were without John Shurna, who was ruled out of the game earlier in the day after continuing to show concussion symptoms. Shurna is Northwestern’s star. He’s the equalizer. He’s the player who can pour in 30 points on a given night and give Northwestern a fighting chance against nearly everyone. He’s who made Kevin Coble expendable before the season.
Secondly, even with Shurna, Northwestern would have been the underdog against Ohio State. It hasn’t exactly been a dominant team this season. The Wildcats were 3-6 in the Big Ten heading into the game and had lost all six of their contents against ranked opponents.
Plus, this was Ohio State. The Buckeyes are the No. 1 team in the country. They’re undefeated. They possess possibly the best player in the country in freshman Jared Sullinger. They possess some of the best shooters in the country. They may not go undefeated the entire season, but this wasn’t where that streak was thought to end.
But despite all the reasons Northwestern shouldn’t have competed Saturday, the Wildcats nearly pulled off the impossible. They came within a shot of shocking the country, being the top story on "SportsCenter," winning the biggest game in its history and putting itself back in the NCAA tournament discussion.
It was almost a perfect storm for Northwestern. The Wildcats played a smart game, slowing down the pace by taking almost the full 35 seconds of shot clock on nearly every possession and giving Ohio State fewer chances to score. Instead of concentrating on Sullinger like everyone else has, the Wildcats’ focus was on not allowing Ohio State’s sharpshooters to go off. They allowed Sullinger to get his, but contained his crew.
Northwestern even had luck on its side. When Ohio State began pulling away in the second half, building its lead to double digits, Northwestern was handed a present. While Michael Thompson sank a 3-pointer, Ohio State’s Dallas Lauderdale was called for an intentional foul. The foul led to a free throw followed by Northwestern getting the ball back then a 3-pointer by freshman JerShon Cobb. Just like that, Northwestern was back in the game. Ohio State coach Thad Matta remarked afterward he thought he had never seen a seven-point play.
Everything began rolling in Northwestern’s favor. Thompson made a 3 with 5:58 left to cut the lead to four points. Alex Marcotullio followed that up with his own 3 to pull Northwestern within one point. With less than four minutes remaining, Thompson buried a 3-pointer from the right side of the court to put the Wildcats ahead 55-54. He knew it was going in from the second it left his hand, and the arena erupted when it fell through the net.
Ohio State regained a 57-54 lead, but Thompson answered again with a driving layup. Tied at 57, Northwestern forced a turnover, and the fans jumped to their feet. The upset was in the Wildcats’ reach, and the entire arena could feel it.
But then, Northwestern’s history caught up with it. The Wildcats turned the ball over with 17 seconds remaining. Ohio State dropped the ball to Sullinger in the post, and he was fouled with 3.5 seconds left. As if the world was toying with Northwestern, Sullinger missed his first attempt, but swished the second. With one last shot, Northwestern sophomore Drew Crawford’s half-court heave missed wide left and banged off the glass.
When the shot fell to the ground, Northwestern’s heads fell with it. They were that close to changing their story, their history. It was there and then it wasn’t.
Even if you don’t like Northwestern, you have to feel for Northwestern.