by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)
EVANSTON, Ill -- When he looks back on his freshman season at Northwestern, Kale Abrahamson will remember one brilliant half of basketball. It came Thursday night in a game no one expected the Wildcats to win. But when Abrahamson buried a deep three to put Northwestern up one with just under 11 minutes to go against No. 16 Ohio State, it appeared as if those presumptions would turn out to be exactly that: presumptious .
A half-filled student section erupted, Abrahamson beamed and the Buckeyes were teetering on the brink of an unlikely upset. “I give them tremendous credit with everything they’ve faced with injuries,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said of Northwestern’s effort.
Those injuries are probably the biggest reason why Abrahamson played 29 minutes, scored nine points and recorded a season-high nine rebounds. He is a freshman receiving extra playing time due to extenuating circumstances. With Jared Swopshire and JerShonn Cobb and Drew Crawford available, your best bet of catching Abrahamson on the floor Thursday night would have involved a quick glance to the end of the bench, where a gangly, unrefined, sharp-shooting first-year would have watched his older teammates try and knock off a Big Ten power.
In a similar game last season against Ohio State, Northwestern had a complete depth chart to work with. There was no room for a developmental freshman like Abrahamson to rise to the forefront. Their NCAA Tournament hopes still alive, a packed Welsh-Ryan Arena presided over an electric atmosphere. Alex Marcotullio drained a tying three with 7.7 seconds left. Much like the booming applause following Abrahamson’s deep and wholly inadvisable three, the students roared.
The comparison extends to the final outcome. Ohio State won that game, and won Thursday night, 63-53, to extend Northwestern’s losing streak to six games.
“We haven’t been playing competitive basketball, so it was certainly time,” Coach Bill Carmody remarked afterward. “I think the effort is there. The guys are trying.”
Divergence between these this year's and last year's home OSU loss begins with Abrahamson’s performance. The second half efforts exhibited by the 6’6’’ freshman guard, including that ridiculous stepback three, were not lost on the coaches and players. For a roster that’s been cut up, turned over and reduced to underclassmen and a few remaining seniors, Abrahamson took his game to a new level.
More than any other aspect of Northwestern’s inspiring effort – perfect 9-for-9 free throw shooting, disciplined zone defense, improved offensive execution – Abrahamson supplied a noticeable jolt of energy that kept the Wildcats’ upset hopes alive deep into the second half.
Carmody was encouraged. “Kale has a long way to go,” he said. “You saw him get some rebounds out there tonight, and his second half was very good.” Point guard and floor leader Dave Sobolewski, a stern verbal critic of Abrahamson’s freshman growing pains during many games this season, took it even further. “He had a couple of tip backs, a couple of offensive rebounds. If we can get that out of him every night, that’s huge for us."
Last time out, Abrahamson was lapsed into a collective swoon as Northwestern lost control of a blowout loss at Purdue. His efforts Thursday night were a change of pace. On its own merits, this is a game Abrahamson can use as a learning tool, a game where his energy and activism resulted in more positives and negatives.
That has not always been the case this season. Like any freshman, Abrahamson has struggled to learn the countours of a complicated Princeton offense. On Thursday night, he put everything together for a 20-minute stretch that nearly saw the Wildcats pick up their biggest win of the season. The loss hurts, particularly when Northwestern played some of its best basketball of the season, and when its last meeting with the Buckeyes in Columbus was likewise decided on the margins. A possession here, a rebound there, and Northwestern walks away with a season-defining triumph in advance of a week-long layoff before senior night against Penn State.
The Wildcats will need to settle on a smaller prize: Abrahamson’s gutsy second-half. The two final games of the season (Penn State, then at Michigan State) will decide whether Thursday night’s game was a sporadic crest of luck and energy, or an indication of a transformed freshman waiting to finish his first-year with a flourish.