These words have defined Northwestern’s season thus far and defined the Wildcats' 75-73 loss to Ohio State Wednesday. After erasing a 13-point second-half lead and negating Ohio State’s mastery of the backboards with precision from beyond the arc, Northwestern fell in the final seconds to the No. 11 Buckeyes on Senior Night. An upset that would have virtually secured the Wildcats a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history became a symbol of Northwestern’s heart-breaking struggle in the blink of an eye.
Spotty early shooting and poor post play hurt Northwestern in the first half, as Ohio State was able to pull down 22 rebounds to Northwestern’s five while also scoring 20 points in the paint (11 coming off second-chance opportunities). Northwestern had no second-chance points, but the offense was carried in the first period by forwards John Shurna and Drew Crawford, who scored 13 and eight points, respectively. Ohio State was led by sophomore Deshaun Thomas and sophomore Jared Sullinger, the third-leading scorer in the Big Ten. Sullinger scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds while Thomas scored 12 points and tallied five boards.
The Buckeyes led 39-29 going into the second half, but with the help of sharpshooting from Shurna and Crawford, Northwestern narrowed the Ohio State lead to five points after having been down by as many as 13 points in the period. The Buckeyes then re-established a 12-point lead with 5:39 left to play via a layup by Lenzelle Smith, Jr., but a three-pointer by Alex Marcotullio catalyzed an 11-3 Wildcat run and foreshadowed the final seconds of play.
The score stood at 70-61 after Marcotullio cut the Buckeye lead to nine. After an Ohio State miss, Crawford grabbed the defensive rebound. John Shurna was fouled on the ensuing possession and made both free throws, bringing the score to 70-63.
A steal by Crawford led to a series of turnovers that Reggie Hearn ended with a layup. After that came offsetting threes by Ohio State’s Thomas and NU freshman Dave Sobolewski. After a steal by Sobo, JerShon Cobb was fouled and made both free throws, reducing OSU’s lead to just three points.
After an Ohio State turnover with 41 seconds left in the game, Hearn missed a jump shot and Thomas subsequently lost the rebound after Cobb stripped him from behind. Northwestern called time out, and when play resumed Alex Marcotullio hit a three-pointer from 25 feet out with 7.1 seconds left, tying the game at 73. Welsh-Ryan was rocking and the Wildcats were one point away from history.
Following another time out, Ohio State inbounded the ball to sophomore guard Aaron Craft. Craft dished the ball to Sullinger, who converted an easy layup to put the Buckeyes up by two points with 3.1 seconds left.
On the Wildcats’ last possession, Shurna stormed along the sideline and thrust the ball towards the hoop from 40 feet out – the last shot at Welsh-Ryan of his career. Wildcats fans held their breath as the shot sailed through the air before bouncing off the front of the rim. Northwestern fell to the Buckeyes 75-73.
42 and 16 – Ohio State’s rebounding total compared to Northwestern’s. The Wildcats have struggled all season long to pull down rebounds and it showed on Wednesday. Averaging 29.3 rebounds a game, Northwestern ranks 332nd for rebounding in Division I basketball out of 344 schools. Conversely, Ohio State ranks 66th in the nation and Sullinger is the second-best rebounder in the Big Ten, averaging 9.3 a game. Along with limiting Northwestern’s offensive chances, Ohio State’s rebounding dominance gave the Buckeyes 20 second-chance points to seven for NU.
“They killed us with the second shot,” Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody said after the game.
39 – Points scored by Northwestern off of three-pointers. Shots from behind the arc are the primary lifeblood of Northwestern’s Princeton Offense and were the reason why the Wildcats came as close to winning as they did. Shurna and Crawford scored 12 points each off of three-pointers and it was threes from Crawford, Marcotulio and Sobolewski that highlighted Northwestern’s rally.
“Every close loss is tough,” Crawford said, “especially when you have a chance to win it down the stretch.”
If the Wildcats had won any of these games, denying them a spot in the tourney would be hard. If they had won two, it’s close to impossible. This season has been marked by close calls, and whether or not the Wildcats make the tourney will be another one.
Play of the game:
Sullinger silenced Welsh-Ryan and saved his squad from upset for the second consecutive year with his game-winning layup. Last year on Jan. 11, the then-No. 1 Buckeyes came to Evanston and were nearly beaten by a Shurna-less Northwestern. However, Sullinger broke the hearts of Northwestern fans with a game-winning free throw.
What may be the most troubling part of how the Wildcats lost this year is how Carmody tried to salvage the lead. Following the game, Carmody told reporters that his team was instructed to try to steal the ball, which ultimately failed. One can only wonder how the game would have ended if Northwestern took a more conservative approach.
Where does Northwestern stand?
While a win Wednesday could have put Northwestern over the top and into the tourney, the loss does little to exclude the ‘Cats from March Madness. ESPN “Bracketologist” Joe Lunardi still has Northwestern going to the tournament as the final — yes, final — team to make it in as of March 1. Still, any hopes Northwestern has of making history hinge on beating Iowa in Des Moines this Saturday.
"We're a resilient bunch,” Crawford said after the game. “We'll be ready to go Saturday."
Ohio State Coach Thad Matta said without hesitation that Northwestern is worthy of a trip to the tourney, adding, "I would hate on Selection Sunday to have Northwestern come across, to have to play them."
Northwestern’s not quite there yet, but the ‘Cats are close – and closer than they have ever been.