Last night, after Northwestern lost 66-64 in overtime at Michigan, a Wildcats fan/friend sent over the following postgame Gchat analysis:
"I'm done with Northwestern hoops," he said. "Just can't do it any more. It's like getting kicked in the [onions!] every year, five times a year."
Can you blame him? On Wednesday night, the Wildcats had the opportunity to beat the No. 13-ranked team in the country, Michigan, on its home floor. And all things considered, Northwestern played well. The Wildcats shot the ball at an eFG% rate of 56.5. They committed a few turnovers (25.0 percent turnover rate), but John Shurna and Drew Crawford combined for 41 points on 31 shots, and Northwestern's defense held the Wolverines to barely more than a point per trip on the offensive end.
And then, in the end, things went crazy. Northwestern yielded an early 10-point second-half lead as Michigan battled back, eventually tying the game in regulation and earning a 66-63 lead with 6.5 seconds left in overtime. It appeared Northwestern was finally finished, but with 0.3 seconds left, Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. fouled Northwestern guard Alex Marcotulio -- who had yet to record a shot attempt all evening, and has shot just 37 field goals on the season (and just nine free throws) on a three-point field goal attempt. Yes, Hardaway Jr. committed this foul. It was one of the more ill-advised mistakes we've seen all season.
Naturally, it worked perfectly. Marcotulio missed the first. He had no choice but to miss the third intentionally, and there wasn't much the Wildcats could do from there.
It was a devastating loss, and it came in succession with another one-point defeat -- a last-second 57-56 home loss to Illinois -- last week. Northwestern also led by 10 in that game (albeit late in the first-half, as opposed to early in the second). It also had late opportunities to win. But Illinois earned a loose-ball foul on the final possession and seven-foot center Meyers Leonard blocked Crawford's last-ditch three, and Northwestern lost that game, too.
It's hard to decide which loss hurts more. In the first, Northwestern had the opportunity to get a solid home win against a decent but not great foe; now that Illinois has gone on to upset Ohio State at home, that missed opportunity looks even more glaring. But Thursday night's game could have been a breakthrough -- a sign that Northwestern could go on the road and win against some of the best competition in the Big Ten, in this case a team that just narrowly lost at Indiana and trounced Wisconsin on the same floor. It would have been a major statement. And, lest we forget, it would have been an awfully nice data point for the NCAA tournament resumé, too.
Therein lies the inherent difficulty of being Northwestern. When most programs lose back-to-back heartbreakers, fans chalk it up to an OK-can't-win-'em-all understanding, at least in the big scheme of things. For Wildcats fans, who have but one overriding goal -- get to the NCAA tournament -- these kinds of missed opportunities feel far more urgent. Northwestern is just right there. It's been right there for much of the past three seasons. Each season, they've found a way to fall just short.
Where this team goes from here -- whether these past two losses will be a breaking point, or a launching pad, or neither -- will be fascinating to watch. In the meantime, give your Northwestern fan friend a nice sturdy pat on the back. Buy him a root beer, or 10. As usual, it ain't easy being purple.