In the Wake of the News
10:14 PM CST, March 8, 2012
INDIANAPOLIS — Inside a cramped Northwestern locker room where 73 years of NCAA tournament futility hung in the heavy air, John Shurna tried in vain Thursday night to explain how his team blew a 75-68 overtime loss to Minnesota.
"To be honest I'm kind of blanking right now,'' Shurna said.
Join the club.
Surely Northwestern graduates across America watched anticipating one of March's best stories, intelligent men and women with vast vocabularies dying to finally brag about their basketball team — and all of them were at a loss for words after this one.
How about a symbol instead? In journalism -30- means the end, and that's what this Northwestern defeat truly represented to its realistic hopes of making the NCAA tournament for the first time ever.
With everything on the line, Northwestern played every late possession as if they imagined members of the selection committee seated on their bench.
Northwestern's last field goal in regulation came with 4 minutes, 44 seconds left. It scored one field goal in overtime. In the type of moment seniors typically take over games, Shurna scored his last field goal with 7:55 left in regulation. Shurna's 21 points were so quiet that the public-address guy should have announced his baskets with a whisper.
There is seizing the moment and letting the moment seize you. Northwestern chose the latter.
"We were making dumb plays,'' Drew Crawford said.
Asked about the offensive problems late in the close game, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody rambled a bit and surprisingly blamed missed layups. Then he cited fatigue. I wondered if Carmody spoke long enough if he would criticize the chef who prepared the pre-game meal.
Isn't it fair to wonder why Carmody didn't do more to get Shurna involved in crunch time? Did anybody else wonder why Northwestern didn't try something more creative defensively to slow down freshman dynamo Andre Hollins before he scored a career-high 25 points? Is the first thing that comes to mind when remembering how Northwestern gave this game away really missed layups?
As likable as Carmody is, teams reflect their coaches. Laid-back Northwestern protects late leads with no confidence and can't put people away, instead buckling under pressure for reasons nobody can explain. Some observers look at Northwestern's three overtime losses and three other defeats by a total of five points as evidence of progress. One also could look at so many near-misses as an indictment of coaching. Depends how badly you think Northwestern needs change.
Nobody denies how close Northwestern is to breaking through as a program, thanks largely to Carmody. Is that the best argument on his behalf or the worst?
I asked Carmody what case he could make for Northwestern to belong to the 68-team NCAA field selected Sunday.
"I told our guys before the game if you win, it doesn't mean you're in and if you lose it doesn't mean you're out,'' Carmody answered. "That's what I think. It's a body of work.''
It's a body suddenly lacking heft after losing to a team that went 6-12 in the Big Ten. With a glaring 1-10 record against teams in the top 50 RPI, Northwestern needed to beat Minnesota to solidify its place in the discussion. If a team can't beat the 10th-seeded team in the first round of the conference tournament on a neutral court, maybe it doesn't deserve to be in the NCAA tournament anyway.
"Hopefully, we won't be disappointed,'' Shurna said of Selection Sunday.
I will be surprised if they aren't disappointed.
By now haven't we all come to expect misery from Northwestern basketball?
When Carmody called timeout with 2:19 left and Northwestern clinging to a 61-59 lead, victory felt as close as it did for the Cubs when they were five outs away from the World Series in Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series.
Over the next 7:19, including overtime, Northwestern lost the game more than Minnesota won it. If anybody needed any more confirmation the Wildcats had become the Cubs of college basketball, there it was. The process used to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory was as familiar as the pain.
Nothing represented the range of highs and lows more than JerShon Cobb committing an unforced turnover with 39 seconds left in overtime and Northwestern trailing 71-68. Cobb scored a career-high 24 points but that play will stand out in everybody's memory more than any other — including his.
"It was all me,'' Cobb said. "My legs kind of wobbled and I couldn't get it back.''
On a night Northwestern needed to stand up, Cobb wasn't the only Wildcat with weak knees.
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