The play of Northwestern has been painfully unpredictable this season. So after three straight 20-point losses, why wouldn’t the ‘Cats come out with a surprising performance?
Though it wasn’t enough to get a win, the Wildcats (13-16, 4-12 Big Ten) broke out of their offensive slump and nearly upset No. 16 Ohio State (21-7, 11-5) before falling 63-53 Thursday night.
Lenzelle Smith Jr. led the way for the Buckeyes, dropping in a game-high 24 points. Freshman guard Tre Demps paced the ‘Cats with 14.
Looking to make the Buckeye offense uncomfortable early, Northwestern went to the 1-3-1 zone right out of the gate. But OSU handled it well. On the first possession, Sam Thompson dumped it down to the Big Ten’s leading scorer Deshaun Thomas for an easy layup.
The Wildcats stuck with the zone, and it burned them. On three straight possessions, the Buckeyes found Smith open in the corner from three, and he knocked down the shot each time. Before long, Northwestern switched to a 2-3.
Luckily, the ‘Cats shot better than they have in the past few games. Freshman center Alex Olah put them on the board with a smooth drop-step layup, and sophomore guard Dave Sobolewski tacked on a three. Demps came off the bench and added two free throws to cut the lead to 11-7.
Although they shot the ball well, the Wildcats hurt themselves with turnovers. They coughed it up six times in the half and allowed Ohio State several fast break opportunities. Luckily, one of them ended in a missed dunk from Smith that caused Welsh-Ryan to erupt.
While Northwestern was missing opportunities, the Buckeyes were creating them with their rebounding. After an offensive board and put-back from Evan Ravenel, their lead stretched to 22-10.
The Wildcats wouldn’t go away, and after trading baskets for the remainder of the half, Sobolewski got his 10th point on a coast-to-coast drive for a layup just before the buzzer, sending the Wildcats into the locker room down just 29-22.
Out of the break, it looked like Ohio State was poised to put the game away. Northwestern turned it over twice, and Smith hit two pairs of free throws to make it 33-22.
But the Wildcats hung around. Sobolewski hit a three, and freshman forward Kale Abrahamson drove in for a layup to cut it to six.
The Buckeyes kept getting to the bucket, but Demps responded. He knocked down a three and aggressively attacked the tin en route to scoring Northwestern’s next nine points. When Abrahamson hit a fadeaway three-pointer over the outstretched arms of two Buckeye defenders, the Wildcats had their first lead at 41-40.
“A big part of [having success offensively] is just making our shots,” said Sobolewski. “We were able to make a run when we started making shots and rebounding.”
Ohio State kept throwing punches, but Northwestern wouldn’t go down. They were sparked by Kale Abrahamson’s three offensive rebounds and a three from Hearn that put them back up 49-48.
“Kale has a long way to go, but he seemed to get some rebounds tonight, and the second half was good,” Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said.
Smith came right back with his sixth three-pointer, and this time, the ‘Cats couldn’t match it. Aaron Craft and Thomas extended the lead to six, and Northwestern turned it over several times while trying to respond. The Wildcats were forced to foul, and the game was sealed from the free throw line.
Despite being hampered by injuries, Northwestern brought the Buckeyes down to the wire twice this season. Ohio State coach Thad Matta praised their effort.
“I give them tremendous credit with everything they’ve faced,” he said. “Bill does a tremendous job, and he had them ready to go.”
The loss was the Northwestern’s sixth in a row, and it stays tough down the stretch. Next Thursday, the will take on a Penn State squad that grabbed its first win of the season this week.
Although they didn’t get the win, the Wildcats ended several streaks and were left with plenty of positives to take away from Thursday’s game.
The rebounding battled ended in a 30-30 tie. It was the first time that the ‘Cats weren’t outrebounded since beating Brown 16 games ago. Northwestern shot 42 percent from the field. The team had not hit even 30 percent of its shots since its last game against the Buckeyes on Valentine’s Day. The ‘Cats had not scored more than 43 points in the last three games, a streak that they ended with over six minutes remaining. The Wildcats also went a perfect 9-for-9 from the free throw line for the first time since they played against Creighton on Dec. 22, 2011.
Player Ratings (1-10, 10 being best)
Dave Sobolewski, 7: While his teammates were turning the ball over frequently, he only coughed it up only once in the game. His offense kept the ‘Cats in the game during the first half, but he was quiet in the second.
Reggie Hearn, 6.5: He wasn’t quite as assertive as usual, but he had a couple of big baskets in the second half to keep it close. He was also one of four Wildcats to turn it over at least three times.
Alex Marcotullio, 3: He was given a rare start, but he didn’t take a single shot all game and had three turnovers. Before foul trouble took him out of the game, he worked hard on the glass, grabbing three rebounds.
Kale Abrahamson, 7.5: The intensity was lacking in the first half, but he responded big time in the second. He hit a crazy three and attacked the basket for nine points, but his biggest contribution was on the glass. He grabbed nine rebounds and created several second chances.
Alex Olah, 6: He showed poise down low and outworked Ohio State’s Amir Williams for the majority of the game. He made several good post moves and hit his free throws, but he was another Wildcat who turned it over too many times.
Bench, 6.5: Mike Turner was pulled after giving up a few offensive rebounds, and James Montgomery wasn’t out there long enough to have an impact. But Tre Demps was huge with his nine straight points in the second half. He also took care of the ball and grabbed three rebounds.
Editor's note, March 1 at 6:55 p.m.: The original version of this story stated that the Wildcats would face Penn State in Happy Valley. It has been changed to reflect that the Wildcats have a home game versus Penn State. Thanks to commenter NU Fan for spotting the error.