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Maligned seniors deliver in upset of Minnesota

by Steven Goldstein (@StevenGoldfish)

It was never fair to expect much.

On most teams, a spot shooter off the bench and a transfer with only a handful of career starts wouldn’t be asked to contribute consistently. Yet on the sans-Drew Crawford Wildcats, that’s exactly what’s being asked of senior forwards Alex Marcotullio and Jared Swopshire.

Prior to Wednesday, both veterans had garnered considerable criticism for their inconsistencies across the floor. Swop’s suspect shot selection and trouble crashing the boards drew the ire of fans expecting a Louisville-caliber swingman, while Marcotullio’s three-point percentage had dipped from .413 last season to under .300 this winter.

But as the final buzzer at Welsh-Ryan Arena sounded Wednesday, giving Northwestern a 55-48 upset over no. 12 Minnesota, the two seniors briefly embraced. This was their night.

“[Swopshire] was a role player at Louisville and a good one. You have to do more here,” coach Bill Carmody said in a post-game press conference.

He certainly did.

Paving the way with 16 points while shooting 60 percent from the field, Swopshire created his own scoring Wednesday, giving the Wildcats an offensive identity they’ve sorely lacked all year. Tallying eight of Northwestern’s first 10 points and snagging a team-high 8 rebounds against the Golden Gophers’ physical interior, Swop set an aggressive tone that powered one of the bigger upsets in recent program history.

“My coaches and my teammates have really encouraged me to stay more aggressive,” he said. "I wasn't a role player before college, so I'm getting back to old habits.”

If Swopshire can make outings like Wednesday a habit, watch out.

“Some of those rebounds were way up there, two-handed rebounds that we haven’t seen in the past that often,” Carmody added. “I think he’s playing better and better because he’s recognizing what’s expected of him here.”

If Northwestern is to compete in the crowded Big Ten, Swopshire’s consistency will be vital. After playing all 40 minutes against Indiana Sunday, he hustled his way to another 39 on Wednesday.

Marcotullio, meanwhile, stayed aggressive on the defensive end. Swiping consecutive steals early in the second half, Marcotullio was a disruptive force atop Carmody’s 1-3-1 zone.

“Al was the spark that got that 1-3-1 going,” said senior Reggie Hearn, who chipped in 13 points Wednesday. “He’s always causing havoc.”

Marcotullio and Swopshire excelled in the trap, where the two teamed up to force spotty ball movement and occasional turnovers. The same Gophers team that buried the ‘Cats with .462 shooting from behind the arc in their Jan. 6th beatdown was suddenly firing blanks.

“It starts with our defense. Our defense has really been able to generate offense for us,” Swopshire said. If Swop and Marcotullio can continue to get pressure in the zone, Northwestern’s scoring troubles could soon be a thing of the past.

The Wildcats’ season seemed like a washout after losing Drew Crawford to a torn labrum and Jershon Cobb to suspension. Yet if Swopshire can replace Crawford’s aggressive offense, and Marcotullio can replicate Cobb’s zone defense, who’s to say Northwestern can’t hang around a little longer?