EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern's student section T-shirt slogan -- "Make Shots" -- isn't just dry-witted and cliché-free. It's also pretty solid basketball advice.
Fitting, then, that these Northwestern Wildcats have to follow it so closely. When John Shurna and company aren't draining 3-pointers from all angles -- when Shurna makes only one shot, singular -- they're going to struggle to score points against athletically superior teams.
Michigan State is one such team, and so it went at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Monday night. Northwestern -- one of the nation's best outside shooting teams with perhaps its best pure shooter in Shurna -- shot 31 percent (18-of-57 from the field) at home in a resilient, but disappointing, 65-62 loss to the Spartans.
"We've just got to be able to move on from this," NU forward Drew Crawford said. "We're going to learn from it, learn how to run our offense more precisely. ... We're going to practice hard tomorrow and get ready for the rest of the Big Ten season."
That's probably the right attitude to take, but Northwestern has to consider this something of a disappointment, because there is good news and bad news baked into the loss.
The good news is that the Wildcats hung tough, came back from a 13-point deficit with 3:51 remaining in the second half, and nearly forced overtime before a bad inbound play doomed Crawford's last-ditch 3-point attempt. Juice Thompson, who had been quiet for much of the night, came alive in the final minutes and almost singlehandedly led his team to an unlikely comeback.
"Juice put us on his back and willed us back into the game," Crawford said.
More good news: Northwestern had a chance to win despite its best player -- a guy averaging 61.8 percent from 3 this season -- struggling through an ankle injury that robbed him of his ability to find open shots in Bill Carmody's tricky Princeton offense. For a team that has relied so much on outside shooting thus far, that counts as something of a moral victory.
Shurna's release is lightning-quick, but his feet, even when 100 percent healthy, are not. And his margin of error is a smaller when playing against athletic defenders like Michigan State's. Shurna never really found good looks -- his one made 3-pointer was the product of a leaning and-one foul on Michigan State guard Kalin Lucas -- and his production (11 points, 8-for-11 from the stripe) came entirely at the free throw line.
The bad news for Northwestern? The late heroics didn't produce a win. And what the Wildcats need right now is wins.
The calculus isn't difficult to figure out: Northwestern's NCAA tournament chances grow dimmer with every conference loss. As of Monday morning, ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi listed Northwestern as one of his first four teams to miss the tournament. Thanks to a nonconference schedule loaded with cupcakes and short on quality opponents (with the possible exception of St. John's), Northwestern can't afford to have a so-so conference season. It needs to handle its business against the Iowas and Indianas of the world, but it also needs to compile more than a few quality wins against the Purdues and Michigan States, too.
In other words, Monday night was a missed opportunity. With a trip to Illinois next on the docket, the Wildcats are in serious danger of beginning the Big Ten season 0-3. That's not the stuff mold-breaking NCAA tournament bids are made of.
"This is a very good team," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I know I say this every year, and it sounds like I'm being hard on Bill, but ... Shurna's not 100 percent. "I watched him move earlier in the year and I watched him move the last two games and I don't think he's quite there, and they need him. He's their best player."
Shurna's bum ankle was especially noticeable on the biggest play of the game, when forward Draymond Green rebounded a missed Lucas free throw over Shurna with :12 seconds remaining in the second half. Green scored an easy layup on the play, gave Michigan State a three-point lead, and forced Northwestern into desperation 3-pointers on its last two possessions.
Green was again the star for Michigan State, a team that seems to be slowly but surely figuring things out. Izzo said his lineups are still in flux, and that he should have called timeouts down the stretch to help his players avoid the late letdown, but that he was otherwise happy with his team's performance.
"I think it will be one of those years for us where nothing is going to be easy," Izzo said. "We just got a little out of whack and I think I'm the one that needs to be blamed for that."
Izzo wouldn't take the blame for Michigan State's biggest ongoing issue, which is the Spartans' seeming inability to keep itself from turning the ball over. Michigan State had another plus-20 percent turnover rate performance Monday night; the Spartans turned the ball over 14 times, including on four key plays during Northwestern's late run.
"That's the problem right now," Izzo said. "I don't have an answer for you on that."
Still, despite the late flurry, Green's all-around play, mixed with some smart shooting, some especially impressive perimeter defense, and a one-make night from the hobbled Shurna propelled Michigan State to the win.
Whether the NCAA tournament selection committee eventually takes Shurna's injury into consideration is now in Northwestern's hands, because to receive NCAA tournament consideration, the Wildcats need to win games against teams better than Northern Illinois and Georgia Tech. And to win games, they need to make shots. It all sounds so simple, doesn't it?