by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
EVANSTON, Ill. – When Reggie Hearn drained a two-point jumper one minute into Northwestern’s Saturday home game against Purdue, it wasn’t just the start of a near-perfect first half shooting performance and a career-high 26 points. It was the end of a week that coach Bill Carmody could only describe as “sad.”
In his past two games, road losses at Nebraska and Michigan, Hearn shot a combined 4-for-19 from the field, and 1-of-8 from the beyond the arc, for 13 points. Hearn’s shooting stroke wasn’t the only thing bothering him. It was his attitude. In fact, the negative vibe affected all of Northwestern’s players.
“We had a bad practice yesterday,” Carmody said. “I was in a bad mood, and I think the guys were too.”
That quick jumper, buried as part of a 12-0 game-opening run, set the tone for the best half of offensive basketball of Hearn’s career. Next came a three-pointer to force Purdue coach Matt Painter to call his second timeout, followed by layup three minute later, then another jumper to push Northwestern’s lead to 15 with eight minutes to go in the opening period.
By the time Hearn jogged his way into the locker room, 14-point lead in tow, the senior guard had commandeered an offensive masterpiece: 21 points, 9-of-10 from the field, 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. Once that first jumper rattled home, Hearn’s sadness evaporated. For the rest of the first half, he was as locked-in as ever before.
“It was just about making shots,” he said. “I got a couple of the same kinds of shots in the Nebraska and Michigan games, but I just wasn’t knocking them down.”
Singling out Hearn’s individual numbers would be a disservice to Northwestern’s overall offensive output. From the opening tip, the Wildcats ran ball screens with precision and purpose, found open shooters on backdoor cuts and facilitated an effective high-low dynamic with Alex Olah positioned on the high post.
It all amounted to 75 points (the most Northwestern has scored in conference play) on 26-of-29 shooting, including 11-of-26 from beyond the arc. Hearn was just one of four Wildcats (Jared Swopshire, Dave Sobolewski and Tre Demps) to finish in double figures. It was the cleanest offensive performance Northwestern has mustered all season. Of all the gaudy scoring statistics from various players, perhaps the most important pertained to the Wildcats’ ball-sharing proficiency: 24 of 26 made baskets came off assists.
That is the definition of a cooperative offensive attack.
“We certainly executed very well,” Carmody said. “There wasn’t any tension on offense. There was a nice flow to it.”
Perhaps Northwestern should think about having “bad” practices more often. Carmody talked about exploiting Purdue center A.J. Hammons’ tendency to stay in the paint, rather than “hedge” out and contest shots on the perimeter. He talked about his players “figuring” things out.
All of which are valid reasons for the Wildcats’ efficient offensive work. For Hearn, it was much simpler than that. “Maybe I was thinking a little too much. I was pressing a little bit,” he said. Carmody broached the idea before Hearn could confirm or deny his account of Hearn’s musings over the past week. “I just told him to relax. This should be the best time of your life. He’s [Hearn] a thoughtful guy. Sometimes smart guys think a little too much. Just go out and play.”
Simple as it may seem, that advice resonated on several levels. One of the first things you notice about Hearn, besides his tireless effort on the court, is his stoic demeanor. And I’m not just talking about the basketball court; On most days, you can find Hearn strolling around campus, hood up, headphones-in-ear, bearing a solemn countenance.
So it was telling when Hearn sat down for his post game press conference and broke with his typical disposition. His week of emotional distress, of two consecutive demoralizing losses, ended with a simple gesture. “See that smile?” Carmody joked after commenting on Hearn’s career day.
Over the next seven days, as Northwestern prepares for a road trip to Iowa, Hearn will have plenty to think about, even if Carmody prefers he doesn’t. People will talk about the 27 points and cant-miss first half, and Hearn may never reach that total again. But that’s not the point – Hearn found himself Saturday, and his teammates fed off his individual success.
As the Wildcats look forward to a brutal finish to Big Ten play, Hearn’s individual breakout, and the ensuing team-wide brilliance, could springboard to greater offensive capability going forward.
“Hitting shots like that, I know I can knock those down in the course of the offense,” Hearn said. “If I’m able to continue to shoot like that, it will open up stuff for other guys, and just help the offense all around.”
What started out as a sad week ended with a 75-60 victory and a day of individual offensive milestones. Now, Reggie Hearn can smile.