Going into tonight, I expected Northwestern to lose. While I didn't think NU would get blown out, I thought Purdue would be too tough to overcome, and didn't really expect the game to be within reach in the final minute. I was wrong; the 'Cats played their hearts out the entire night, and should have had the final possession with at worst a chance to force overtime with a three, but they screwed it up and suffered what has to be their most frustrating loss of the season.
Despite the allegedly tight rims, Northwestern hit their first 5 threes and took an early 17-6 lead. Luka Mirkovic was doing great work inside, drawing early two fouls on JaJuan Johnson and passing well out of the post. Unfortunately, NU couldn't exploit Johnson's absence because Mirkovic picked up two quick fouls of his own. That left the remainder of the first half as a battle of the backup centers, and Patrick Bade held his own against Davide Curletti and Kyle Rowley (perhaps he was motivated after I gave him the Big White Stiff award). The 'Cats took a 4 point lead to the locker room, and it could have been a lot more had Purdue not forced 11 turnovers with their aggressive man to man defense. Also, E'Twaun Moore had a monster first half with 16 points, keeping his team in the game pretty much by himself.
In the second half, Purdue really clamped down on defense and opened with a 15-4 run, taking a 7 point lead. But Northwestern hung tough, thanks in large part to Drew Crawford and John Shurna. Crawford shook off his late season struggles and had a big night with 15 points and 10 rebounds, but more importantly played excellent defense with 2 emphatic blocked shots. Shurna was hounded by Purdue for much of the game, but finally got loose down the stretch and hit several very tough shots to finish with 16 points.
The 'Cats had cut the lead to two with about 7 minutes left when Johnson went to the line for a 1 and 1. As he was making the first free throw, Luka Mirkovic stupidly elbowed Kelsey Barlow in the face and was called for an intentional foul. That led to a 5 point possession for Purdue and killed the NU momentum. Just an absolutely idiotic play, and Bill Carmody rightfully put him on the bench the rest of the game. While it would have been nice to have Mirkovic out there down the stretch, Carmody had no choice but to sit him, just a stupid, dirty play.
The Boiler lead stayed at 5 to 7 for much of the rest of the game, and things looked bleak when Michael Thompson fouled out on a charge with just under 2 minutes to go (as an aside, it was unquestionably a charge, but slow-motion replays clearly showed Chris Kramer going into a flop before Juice made contact. His head whipped back as though he'd been shot, and he hadn't even been touched yet. Kramer's already a great defender, no need for weak stuff like that). However, Northwestern made a late rally, as Shurna hit 2 free throws to cut the deficit to 4 with just under a minute left. Purdue then easily broke the NU pressure and had a 3 on 1 break, but Crawford somehow managed to get a steal, and quickly got the ball ahead to Jeremy Nash, who buried a contested 3 for his only field goal of the night, cutting it to 1 with about 45 seconds left. Here is where Bill Carmody made a huge tactical error. NU wasn't in position to set up their press, they were all over the place after the wild sequence right before Nash hit the three. Plus, with a 10 second differential, he had to make a decision about how to approach the final possession. So it was an obvious situation to use a timeout and set up his defense. However, Carmody inexplicably didn't use one, and with Northwestern scrambling around unsure whether or not to foul, Purdue once again broke the pressure and Kramer made the biggest play of the game, converting a tough lay-up while getting fouled by Curletti. On that play, the 'Cats had a chance to foul a sub--50% foul shooter in Barlow, but because there was no timeout, the players on the court didn't realize that and missed a golden opportunity. I'm really furious with Carmody for that decision; had he used a timeout to set the defense Kramer never gets that chance. Worst case, they hit two free throws and NU has a chance to tie with a three. Ugh, just ugh. Instead, Kramer completed the 3-point play, and Alex Marcotullio bricked a contested 3 on the next NU possession. Purdue rebounded and hit 4 free throws down the stretch to make the final margin a deceiving 8.
Credit really has to go to both teams in this game. Purdue is without a great player in Hummel, and Johnson and Moore stepped up in his absence, scoring 50 of their team's 69 points. Northwestern did a nice job on the rest of the Boilers, holding the role players to 5 for 26 shooting, but the two stars were too much to overcome. Purdue also played fantastic defense, as the 'Cats got very few easy looks, but Shurna and Crawford were able to keep them in it by hitting some very tough shots. 21 for 27 free throw shooting for NU was also nice. It was a hard-fought, grind it out game, as both teams gave it their all and left everything out on the floor (and that's 4 cliches in one sentence, brutal, I feel like LTP). But seriously, it was a hell of a game; it's too bad Northwestern doesn't consistently put forth that kind of effort. Purdue brings it on the defensive end every night, and that's why they're a top 10 team and can still do damage in the NCAAs despite Hummel's absence. Hopefully, the 'Cats learn from this game and realize the type of effort necessary to compete at the highest levels.
Either way, I'm a lot more optimistic about NU's chances should they make the NIT, as this was a virtual road game and they acquitted themselves quite well. And should they fall to the CBI, I really like their chances in that. But that's small consolation right now, as this could have been an NU win had Carmody used a timeout at the end. Obviously it would have been tough to score and potentially force overtime, and winning in overtime would have been very difficult with Thompson fouled out and Crawford, Nash and Shurna all with 4 fouls, but they would have at least had a chance. I hope someone asked Carmody about this after the game, as I'd really like an explanation.
Thanks to everyone who showed up for the game thread tonight, I believe we set a basketball season record for comments, so hats off all-around. See everyone for whatever postseason tournament chooses NU.