Saturday was a staged blackout. Northwestern donned black home uniforms and the student section (bravo, by the way) followed suit donning black t-shirts with purple “N”‘s at a sold-out Welsh-Ryan Arena. On the heels of back-to-back gut-wrenching losses to Illinois and #13 Michigan, this one was the game that you saddled up and said “well, we’ve got nothing to lose” as it was hardly a must-win on the schedule. However, with our competitive play, you thought “if we can keep it close…”. A blowout loss to the Spartans at home and the black might have taken on more of a tone of the wake.
However, when one of your two megastars is suspect to even play with the flu, you really felt like we needed a miracle. Move over Tim Tebow, enter Davide Curletti. After a promising start with Mr. Gutsy, David Sobolewski hitting a leaner and Drew Crawford raising an eyebrow with a step-back jumper, the Spartans seemed to take control from the get-go and you could tell their gameplan was simple -lockdown John Shurna. Our fearless leader was invisible as Draymond Green and the Spartan bigs were all over the man who became our school’s 3rd best alltime scorer on this unforgettable day. You’re sitting there saying to yourself Drew Crawford is essentially out. JerShon Cobb is injured and won’t play. Alex is still hurt and is an “X factor”. Luka has been non-existent as a presence. We’ve got five guys going against not just a good Michigan State team, but a team that has won 15 straight games. They’re the hottest team in the entire nation and a program that has just owned us, winning 48 of the last 52 entering today. When you’re a team and a program with seemingly a fragile pysche, this was setting up to be a potential season knockout punch.
The first glimpse that something was different was when our star of the day, Davide, managed to grab a rebound in traffic off a Shurna missed three -pointer and the ‘Cats down 9-4. He muscled it back between two defenders and created a foul. As you know, I’ve been hammering this program’s lack of rebounding fundamentals for several years to no avail. Michigan State always highlights the discrepancy by seemingly almost padding their stats playing volleyball off the glass against us. I marked this moment down as a potential point to look back at and say “huh, this was different”. A few minutes later, after several back door cuts and finally a pair of points from John Shurna, there was Curletti again attacking the basket and drawing a foul. He took it with authority, something our 5-spot has rarely done this year. He’d split the free throws, but it setup the true game-changing moment for me, just a couple trips later. Down 14-9, David Sobolewski missed an open three and there was Curletti attacking the glass and despite wide bodies Draymond Green and Derrick Nix boxing him out, he scrapped for it, created a loose ball, scooped it up and split the Spartan bigs for a kiss off the glass. Spark ignited.
The student section was going bonkers. Sparty would score but it didn’t matter. Next trip down Curletti got it at the point and curled a perfect back door pass to Drew Crawford for a lay-up. You could feel Drew starting to shake the illness and feed off the momentum. 17-13 Sparty. Michigan State scored down low and the very next trip Curletti was at the same spot and on the reverse popped a three. BANG! 19-16 Sparty, the one man show was on and Gus Johnson was in full NCAA Tournament mode ensuring the nation knew how to pronounce the Italian name. Luka would come in on the break and on the next posession Drew Crawford violently contested a Payne dunk, and while he fouled him, he sent a message – nothing easy today. However, as Davide rested up, the ‘Cats fell apart on offense, including a few meak attempts in the paint by Luka and all of a sudden NU was on the ropes down 25-16 just like that. Curletti was rushed back to check in and Drew Crawford calmly drained a three to keep us within striking distance. Gus Johnson was lamenting the fact with 7 minutes to go John Shurna didn’t have a field goal and before he could finish his sentence there was Curletti boxed out by Draymond Green and trying to follow a Drew Crawford miss from the point. Green was in position, but Curletti sidestepped him, tipped it, grabbed it and threw a left hand hook off the glass all in one motion to cut the lead to 25-21. With 7 minutes to go, Curletti had 5 times as many points as the Big Ten’s leading scorer. It was almost a carbon copy of earlier and once again, the entire arena and his teammates were drawing off of his unbelievable play. Crawford would score on a beautiful one hand backdoor curl pass from Sobo and we were in this thing despite being so overmatched with bodies it was unthinkable.
Down two, Curletti was playing great “D” and caused a turnover on Derrick Nix at the other end. The Spartans would seem to be one possession ahead of us consitstently pulling ahead by six, but there was Davide making something happen. He got the ball on the wing and threaded the needle to Shurna backdoor for a perfect assist to cut it to 29-25. The Spartans would be stuck with a four point lead 31-27 where it sat for awhile, until, yup, our caped crusader came through again. Sobolewski found Curletti cutting backdoor and he split the Spartan bigs – AGAIN – and this time got hit, changed hands and kissed it off the glass sending the decible level to danger zone in Welsh-Ryan. He converted the three and had a season high 13 points. After a sparty basket NU was down three with under two to go and now Izzo was having guys collapse on Curletti. He took the pass in the post, kicked it to Sobo, who swung it to Alex Marcotullio. As Gus Johnson said “Purrrre!” and just like that we were improbably tied. Sparty would split another free throw and we had a line-up of Davide Curletti, Nick Freundt, Alex, Sobo and Shurna on the floor against a potential Final Four team.
Curletti once again got the rock in the post and was double-teamed. He went airborne, switched hands, threw a left pass to the point and Sobo again swung it to Marcotullio from the same spot. Carbon copy play with a little higher degree of difficulty and…BEDLAM. NU had the lead. More importantly, we had the confidence from the non-Shurna members of this team. They were feeling it and they knew it was them. Sure, Drew had played with incredible heart and had hit big shots, but to this point John had only six points and Davide Curletti had carried the ‘Cats. Down 37-36 with one last possession before the half, the incredible happened. The shot clock was winding down and the ball deflected out to half court. Nick Freundt gathered it, sent it to Shurna who pulled up from 27 feet (and seemingly got hammered as he released) and “OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!” said Gus Johnson upon the incredible three. My God, it felt like we were IN March Madness. At this very moment you said “this could be our day”, yet, much like the team, our confidence was shattered from recent games and you knew we’d have white knuckle time in the second half. Northwestern 39-37 at the half.
You got the sense that lockerroom was filled with “we can do this” chants. Having blown back-to-back second half 10-point leads, a 2-point lead against winners of 15-straight was beyond nothing. Yet, the way we had played as a team, crashed the boards, spread the wealth and picked up for a beleagured Drew Crawford and overcompensation on John Shurna and the “other guys” had the fire and confidence. Shurna’s three seemed to signal “thanks guys, I’m back now too”. Right out of the gates Shurna threw a lefty beautiful backdoor pass to a cutting Reggie Hearn for a deuce that would spark the single best half of his collegiate career. A couple trips later, there was our man Curletti swatting Payne to seize control of momentum. Crawford calmly spotted up for a jumper and we were up by four.
All of a sudden a foul fest broke out as both teams started bodying hard and the refs would have none of it. Drew Crawford stepped up and hit a money three from the wing to put us up 48-42 with 15:55 to go. Momentum was all Northwestern. We missed multiple rebounds and Wood buried a three to cut it to three and you felt it slipping in to “here we go” mode. Not today. Crawford again buried a three on a great cross-court pass to answer and the joint was jumping 51-45. You forgot about the flu by this point. Crawford made a get-you-out-of-your-seat block, but Sobo missed a lay-up and Keith Appling just kept pushing it at us at 60 mph causing fouls. The ‘Cats and Spartans would just trade baskets for free throws and the ‘Cats continued to do things you so seldom see. Offensive rebounds with guys following their misses. Reggie Hearn playing out of his mind making a put-back tip-in on a Shurna Hail Mary three. It was a five point game for awhile…and then…he came back.
With 12:30 to go and the ‘Cats up 55-50, Davide Curletti was on the perimeter and threw it three feet to Crawford beyond the three point line. He turned, sealed his man and Crawford led him with a pass and Davide threw down a monster jam that I’ve yet to see in years from a 5-man on Northwestern. Absolute bedlam ensued. Izzo had to call a timeout to try and quiet the crowd. It did nothing. The ‘Cats defended and Shurna would torch his man for a lay-up and foul. It was hard to watch knowing we were at double-digit territory hovering around that fateful 10 minute mark of the second half. No problem, Curletti steal! A back and forth of fouls would happen and just as Sparty cut it to eight, Reggie Hearn’s confidence continued to blossom. A rebound here, a rebound there and wouldn’t you know it there was Davide spinning in the paint, drawing traffic and dishing to Hearn for a lay-up. Gus Johnson wisely kept pounding the theme of whether or not we could put away the Spartans. Then, with 8:55 left to go I felt the very first tingle of March Madness and found myself believing, if only for the moment that this was our day that could lead to our year. Up 65-54, Shurna deflected a pass, Hearn coralled it and led Shurna beautifully and he replicated Davide’s slam from earlier and Welsh-Ryan may have matched the 1994 upset over Michigan level of loudness. Send this moment to every single recruit. Draymond Green would answer with a three to cut it to ten, but you sensed this one would be different. Then Davide missed badly in the paint. Had our good luck charm run out? Was this the turning point run to start something for Sparty? Have no fear, Reggie Hearn promptly drew a charge.
There would be plenty to worry about. Michigan State would go on their big run. They hit a jumper, stole it from Hearn for a behind the back assist for a lay-up and then create a foul to cut it to 69-64. By now, Shurna had that killer instinct thing we’ve been begging for kicking in to gear. He took it in the paint for an up and under that created a foul and sent him to the line for more FTs which he’d hit. Now, Michigan State couldn’t crack the 5-point mark. We were staving off the run from the winners of 15 straight games this year and a team we hadn’t beat in this building in a decade. If there was any doubt, NU up 7 worked the clock and John Shurna stepped up with a three from the top of the key. That was essentially game set match. We’d work the clock, get fouled, hit our free throws and even an alley-oop to Crawford for good measure. We’d come to learn that Alex Marcotullio had a concussion. We had five guys for the second half. No Cobb, a sick Crawford and Luka as the only guy really available on the bench.
You’ve got to give credit to Bill Carmody. This was his masterpiece. He played all the right moves in the first half and challenged his players to step up and they responded. He somehow got them to crash the boards. The role players earned a ton of confidence. We didn’t just overcome our tentative ways with a lead – we obliterated it by burying the ghost of Sparty. Wildcats win 81-74 and beat a ranked time for the first time in two years and 16 games. Our reward? A trip to the Kohl Center where we never, ever win. However, in this zany Big Ten year, anything is possible.
The B1G is in complete chaos. Every night a different ranked team goes down to a team it shouldn’t. NU beats Michigan State, Iowa blows out #13 Michigan, Minnesota beats Indiana at Indiana. Every single game seems to be a complete coin flip. Northwestern is now 12-5,2-3 and is staring at back-to-back road games at Wisconsin and Minnesota before returning home to face Purdue and Nebraska. If we could split these road games to move to 3-4, that 9-9 mark wouldn’t seem out of the question. The bigger picture for this team is our depth. We somehow showed we could beat a top ten team at home with a ton of adversity. It was a great job by Carmody and an even better job by Davide. If we can somehow get JerShon and Alex healthy, the confidence we gained today for guys like Curletti and Hearn could pay huge dividends in the coming week. This was our hoops version of the win at Nebraska. It’s a season changer and momentum swing that you need if you’re going to do something special, like become the first in school history to go dancing.
We’ve got a loooong way to go before we start talking about the reality of the unthinkable. You’ll be hearing about how NU is #30 in the all-important RPI and now has wins over two top five RPI teams( (#2 Seton Hall and #4 Michigan State) and is now 2-5 against Top 50 RPI teams. However, for this day and this moment, you felt that we were back in the black on the season. Let’s be sure to keep those unis handy. Click here for the Chicago Tribune’s take on the game and hang on and savor this one. It was a classic.