In a season marred by bad luck and disappointment, there would be no silver lining for the players who were battling on the Welsh-Ryan floor for the last time. Just like the previous six games, Senior Night ended in dejection for Northwestern players.
The Wildcats (13-17, 4-13 Big Ten) fell 59-66 to Penn State (10-19, 2-15) on Thursday, which notched its first true road win of the year.
Senior guards Alex Marcotullio and Reggie Hearn fittingly led the way for the 'Cats. Marcotullio had a career-high 22 points, including six three-pointers, while Hearn added 11.
Junior Jermaine Marshall and sophomore D.J. Newbill each contributed 18 for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State came out with energy and looked determined to spoil the Northwestern seniors’ final Evanston outing from the get-go. The Nittany Lions started their pressure defense just across the half-court line, and nonchalant passing led to five Northwestern turnovers in the first four minutes.
“I just think that we didn’t handle their three-quarter-court press very well,” Hearn said. “We knew that they were going to play that 1-2-2 trap and we didn’t execute like we have in practice, and we were just kind of careless with the ball.”
Penn State took advantage and buried the 'Cats with a 12-0 run right off the bat. Newbill spearheaded the run with the first seven points of the game, and the slow start left the Wildcats scoreless for over five minutes until freshman forward Kale Abrahamson drilled a three.
That shot started the fire, and Northwestern then went on an 11-0 run to cut the deficit to 15-14. Sophomore point guard Dave Sobolewski’s aggression was key, and freshman center Mike Turner provided the energy off the bench that fueled the run.
Penn State stuck with it and stayed hot from behind the arc. They went 5-for-10 on threes, but began to turn the ball over and could not stop fouling. Northwestern was in the bonus with over eight minutes to go, which allowed the 'Cats to stay in the game and go into the half down just 34-30.
After the break, it seemed as though the first half was replaying itself. The Nittany Lions scored the first seven points of the half, and the 'Cats didn’t score until about five minutes in.
But once they did, it was the Alex Marcotullio show.
On senior night, the guard hit three after three until his sixth one put the Wildcats up 54-53. A rowdy crowd exploded every time he knocked one down.
“It’s about time something started going in,” Marcotullio said. “I’ve struggled all year and it was nice seeing some go through the basket.”
Still, Penn State would not stop responding. They continually ran screens off the ball that allowed their wings to get open in the lane, and they knocked in many buckets from close range.
“It’s a whole team thing. There probably wasn’t enough pressure on the ball,” said Northwestern coach Bill Carmody. “There has to be pressure on the passer so that they can’t see [the target].”
The Wildcats suffered a huge blow when Hearn fouled out with three minutes to go. As he dejectedly headed to the bench, he received a standing ovation from gracious fans.
Without one of their leaders, the 'Cats struggled to make a comeback, but with just more than a minute left, they were down 61-57 and had a chance to pull within one possession. Instead of going to the basket and looking to get an easy two points, freshman guard Tre Demps came off a screen and threw up a contested three-pointer that missed wide right.
All Northwestern could do was hope for missed free throws, but that didn’t happen. With the game already decided, Marcotullio was taken out for one last time to another thunderous ovation from the crowd. And as the buzzer sounded, fans filed out of the building for the last time this season.
“Too many turnovers,” Marcotullio said. “I think that was the deciding factor in the game. Those are possessions lost and points lost. It hurts because I wanted to go out on top here, and sadly that’s not the case. I left everything out there, and so did Reg and everyone else, and I’m just happy to be a part of this great program and great university.”
Talk of Carmody’s potential firing reached its peak, and when asked about it, he admitted that it has been on his mind. Hearn and Marcotullio argued in his defense, citing that he’s been through a lot, having to deal with all of the injuries.
But Carmody still has a job for now, so he chose to focus on his players who finished up their careers on the Welsh-Ryan floor. Their contributions have led to one of the most successful eras of Northwestern basketball, and he applauded them for their efforts.
“Since they came here, they’ve played with a passion and wanted to improve, and both of them did,” Carmody said. “Both of them are good players and very good teammates, and we’re going to miss them.”
Northwestern wraps up its regular season when it heads to East Lansing on Sunday to take on No. 10 Michigan State.