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Cardiac Catastrophes: A Look at Northwestern Basketball in One-Possession Games

Northwestern football has a reputation - at least amongst us fans - as the Cardiac Cats. The team is never out of a game, really in any way: they have a rep for blowing big leads as happened multiple times this year, and they have a rep for coming back from seemingly insurmountable deficits. However, NU fans pride themselves on all things Cardiac generally working out, we like to think we get a good percentage of wins in those scenarios.

Northwestern basketball also has its fair share of tight games. You might have noticed this after two straight losses by a combined three points.

In the four years I've attended Northwestern - the four years of Northwestern basketball relevance - the Wildcats have gotten into 17 games that were a) decided on the final possession of the game by a game-winning shot b) could have been decided or sent into overtime by a shot that was missed on the game's final possession or c) went into overtime and hypothetically could have been decided on the final possession of regulation by whoever had the ball.

They are not all games Northwestern should have won. In fact, many of them were the result of improbable comebacks or near upsets. However, common logic leads one to believe that in games where the outcome will be decided by the result of one offensive possession, and teams convert on one offensive possession roughly half of the time - that Northwestern would be successful roughly half of the time, perhaps a little less since their games are generally played against very high levels of competition. This is not the case.


Jan. 28, 2009: Northwestern 77, Indiana 75

Northwestern looked to have the game against lowly Indiana wrapped up, up six with two minutes to go, but the game was 75-75 with the shot clock turned off. Indiana stupidly fouled sharpshooter Craig Moore 30 feet from the basket with six seconds to go, he drained both, and the resulting inbounds pass was stolen by Kevin Coble.

Jan 31, 2009: Northwestern 66, Wisconsin 63

Northwestern held a slim lead in the closing minutes when Wisconsin began fouling. Craig Moore made six free throws in the game's last 15 seconds, and Jeremy Nash stole the ball on Wisconsin's desperation play.

Feb. 18, 2009: Northwestern 72, Ohio State 69

Jon Diebler hit eight threes to combat 49 combined points from Kevin Coble and Craig Moore, but with the game tied at 69, Bill Carmody drew up a sideline out-of-bounds play for freshman John Shurna for the win, and he connected on a three. Ohio State couldn't get off a last-second shot.

Feb. 14, 2010: Northwestern 77, Minnesota 74 (overtime)

The Golden Gophers' season was in full collapse, but they had a 13-point second half lead against Northwestern. Led by six John Shurna threes, NU fought back to take the lead in regulation before an extra period, where a 9-0 run cemented the only overtime victory Northwestern has had in my four years here.

Feb 17, 2011: Northwestern 73, Iowa 70

The Cats comfortably led all game, but a late rally by Iowa left Northwestern up two with seconds remaining. Juice Thompson split a pair at the free throw line, but Iowa turned the ball over trying to go the length of the court in the last seconds.


Jan. 15, 2009: No. 19 Purdue 63, Northwestern 61

Northwestern had a 14-point lead against a ranked Purdue squad, but seven missed second-half free throws - as well as a questionable foul in a non-shooting situation put JaJuan Johnson on the line with two seconds to go, where he converted both. Craig Moore's desperation three was off the mark.

Feb. 12, 2009: No. 20 Illinois 60, Northwestern 59

Demetri McCamey broke my tiny freshman heart by going glass with a midrange jumper with three seconds left, as NU blew a 14-point lead against a ranked Illinois team. The Cats were up 59-50 with about two and a half minutes left, but displayed some of the most pitiful press-breaking technique I've ever seen and went scoreless as chants of "I-L-L" echoed through Welsh-Ryan.

Feb. 15, 2009: Michigan 70, Northwestern 67 (overtime)

Kevin Coble hit one of the most impressive shots I've ever seen - it looked like he held onto the "shoot" button slightly too long in a basketball video game and shot it as he was coming down - from deep to send the game into overtime. But Manny Harris scored eight in the extra session to give Michigan the W.

Dec. 30, 2009: Illinois 89, No. 25 Northwestern 83 (overtime)

The first game Northwestern ever played as a ranked team ended in failure as a preface to the Outback Bowl game the football team would play two years later. Mike Tisdale abused Northwestern's front line to the tune of 31 points and 11 rebounds, hitting jumpers and also murdering Luka Mirkovic and Kyle Rowley in the post. John Shurna put up 27, but horrific shooting from the rest of the team saw NU needing a bucket with 20 seconds left. Of all the things in the world to happen, Luka Mirkovic tipped in a shot and NU forced a turnover on the game's last possession of regulation, but Illinois ran away with the extra frame.

March 6, 2010: Indiana 88, Northwestern 80 (overtime)

Northwestern needed a win to salvage NCAA hopes. Indiana needed a win because they had lost 11 straight. Jordan Hulls hit eight threes to give Indiana a comfortable lead, but a late Juice Thompson-led rally saw NU tie it up. But 31 points and 12 rebounds for John Shurna went for naught as the Hoosiers scored seven straight to open up OT.

Jan. 3, 2011: No. 19 Michigan State 65, Northwestern 62

Michigan State led comfortably for most of the game, dunking all over NU and benefitting from a poor performance from a recently-injured John Shurna. But Juice Thompson scored nine points in a 12-0 run in the last two minutes of the game to shave a 13-point lead to one. Kalin Lucas uncharacteristically missed a free throw to extend the lead at the front of a one-and-one, but Draymond Green tipped it in off the miss and two shot attempts by NU couldn't connect as another ranked opponent left Evanston with a tight win.

Jan. 15, 2011: No. 24 Michigan State 71, Northwestern 67 (overtime)

The two teams played possibly the worst half of Big Ten basketball ever as the score was 23-18 at the break. Northwestern had a chance to win on the final possession of the game, but Juice Thompson turned the ball over, and the Wildcats fell short in overtime and dropped two games to the same ranked team in two weeks.

Jan. 29, 2011: No. 1 Ohio State, 58, Northwestern, 57

Knowing the No. 1 team in the country was coming to play, NU played molasses ball, managing the least possessions in a game all season long. OSU led by double-digits in the second half, but went cold down the stretch. First came a seven-point Northwestern possession courtesy of an intentional foul by Dallas Lauderdale, then Ohio State began bricking free throws. The Buckeyes didn't score for a three minute stretch towards the end of the game, but with the game tied and the chance to take the lead, David Lighty stole an entry pass to give Ohio State possession. Then, Two Shots Sullinger drew a foul, and tantalizingly missed the first, only to roll the second one in. Drew Crawford's last second halfcourt heave was off-target.

March 11, 2011: No. 1 Ohio State, 67, Northwestern, 61 (overtime)

Writing about this game caused referees to reward two shots to Jared Sullinger, so I'll just ignore it.

March 23, 2011: Washington State, 69, Northwestern, 66 (overtime)

With a trip to Madison Square Garden on the line, Washington State had a two-point lead with seconds to go, but DeAngelo Casto was whistled for goaltending after getting really high to block a John Shurna layup. A defensive screwup led to Abe Lodwick having an open look at the basket, forcing NU to foul him with .2 seconds on the clock, but in a step back for Jewish basketball players everywhere, Lodwick bricked the pair to send the game into overtime. Northwestern only mustered two points in the extra period and Alex Marcotullio missed back-to-back three point attempts to send it into double overtime, and the Cats' farthest ever trip into the postseason was cut short.

Jan. 4, 2012: Illinois 57, Northwestern 56

The Illini were up seven with two minutes left, but two triples and a Drew Crawford tip had the game tied. Myke Henry split a pair at the line after grabbing an offensive rebound after what looked a charge on Brandon Paul, and Drew Crawford's length-of-the-floor drive with six seconds to go was denied at the rim by a soaring Meyers Leonard block.

Last freakin' night: No. 13 Michigan 66, Northwestern 64 (overtime)

Northwestern was up by ten but yeah guess what you saw the game too. NU failed to get off a shot on its last possession, as Drew Crawford was called for an up-and-down on his way to the hoop. In OT, NU had the chance to send the game into a fourth period when Alex Marcotullio was fouled while shooting a three with .3 seconds left, but he clanged the first.


Overall in one-possession or overtime games: 5-12

One-possession or overtime games since 2009-2010: 2-9 (I wouldn't have included the 08-09 season, but remembered some heartbreakers that year and left it in after I realized excluding it would be cherrypicking.)

Overall in overtime games: 1-7

One-possession or overtime games against ranked teams: 0-7

One-possession or overtime games as a ranked team: 0-1 (lol)


Catharsis or katharsis (Greek: κάθαρσις) is a Greek word meaning "cleansing" or "purging". It is derived from the verb καθαίρειν, kathairein, "to purify, purge," and it is related to the adjective καθαρός, katharos, "pure or clean."

That's why I wrote this post.

Even the sun goes down, and what we have here is a distinct mean to be regressed to. It's one thing to be a sub-par basketball team. I find that Northwestern isn't. I'd characterize Northwestern as a quite good basketball team that consistently is tasked with beating teams that are several notches above them on the rankings. One would think that Northwestern's odds of beating these teams would improve when the game is reduced to its smallest factor: over the course of a 40 minute death-match with timeouts every four minutes, Goliath would've mercilessly beaten David into a corpse and the Philistines tourney resume would have improved. But David had a slingshot and possession of the rock, and seized the opportunity.

For whatever reason - your hypotheses about Northwestern "not being clutch", or "Bill Carmody looks like he doesn't care!" or whatever can supply the causality - Northwestern has played well below average, and in my opinion, well below their standards, in situations where they've given themselves uniquely high chances to succeed.

And here we are again.