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Northwestern Senior Night Tarnished In a 66-59 Loss to Penn State

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn

EVANSTON, Ill. -- After a season of untimely injuries, nagging back pain and a career-low .307 three-point percentage, finally, Alex Marcotullio’s three-pointers began to fall. Screen after screen, pin-down after pin-down, the hot long-range stroke was back.

“It’s about time some of them started going in,” he said. When it was over, Marcotullio had canned six long-range bombs, the most of any game this season. His 22 points, all of which came either from behind the three-point line or the free throw line (4-for-4), were a career high.

Despite it all, Alex Marcotullio couldn’t help but be disappointed after losing a seventh consecutive game -- 66-59 to a Penn State team with two Big Ten wins and 10 overall -- to close the home portion of Northwestern’s season and watch a night scheduled for celebration and years-long achievement be marred by another devastating defeat. His offensive brilliance – and the late second-half run it inspired – weren’t the main things on Marcotullio’s mind as he pondered a four-year career nearing its end.

“It hurts, because I wanted to go out on top here,” he said. “I left everything out there. I’m just happy to be a part of this great program and university"

The hurt became an inescapable fate after Marcotullio made a rare error during a pivotal late possession. With the Wildcats down four point and 30 seconds remaining, Marcotullio ran around a screen looking to catch and shoot – a staple of Marcotullio’s three-point oriented offensive repertoire. As the senior guard received a hand off, up-faked a defender, and set his feet, A Penn State guard disrupted his path, stepped into a passing lane and intercepted Marcotullio’s pass. The Nittany Lions’ bench erupted in enthusiasm; Northwestern’s reserves gloomily stared into a lifeless crowd filtering out onto the Evanston streets for the last time in 2013.

Game over. Senior night spoiled. Last meaningful minute of basketball at Welsh Ryan Arena sullied.

Shortly after, Marcotullio walked off the court to a booming applause. Fellow senior Reggie Hearn had already found a seat on the bench, having fouled out around the three-minute mark. Two of the night’s three senior honorees (Louisville transfer Jared Swopshire was also honored) found themselves planted on the pine, unable to ignite the team they helped carry through a long and unsettling season.

“It was really hard,” Marcotullio said. “I felt in my heart that this program cares about me and the fans care about me. I couldn’t ask for a better program.”

A hot topic on Twitter and in the postgame media interviews was coach Bill Carmody’s job status. There was speculation Carmody would be relieved of his duties after last season, when the Wildcats suited a healthy lineup, the best player in program history (John Shurna) and still managed to fall short of the NCAA Tournament.

The criticism has crept up yet again – and was escalated by this tweet from Chicago Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein – even as Carmody labors to keep his team competitive in the nation’s toughest basketball conference without three of its four best players. Marcotullio was quick to defend the Wildcats coach.

“In terms of preparing us to win, he’s done an unbelievable job,” he said. “We’re the players on the court, and we have to make the plays. In my opinion (and I feel like a lot of our guys feel the same way), Coach Carmody and the coaching staff have put us in good situations to win, and in the right spots we just have to make plays. Unforutnately we haven't been able to, but I think he deserves high praises for all the circumstances he's been dealt this year.”

There you have it – a cogent defense from a player who knows Carmody’s methods and values better than any media critic or irritant fan. His opinion, of course, will not carry as much weight as Northwestern’s athletic powers-that-be. Which leads us to this: Carmody said he plans to address his job status with athletic director Jim Phillips after the Big Ten Tournament, which begins one week from Thursday.

And that is how a disappointing night of Northwestern basketball in a season full of them came to a dispiriting close: with more questions than answers, more dismay than appreciation. A night intended to honor Marcotullio’s accomplishments and resilience, a night that elicited his very best efforts on the offensive end, turned into a referendum on Carmody’s job status.

Needless to say, this was not Marcotullio’s ideal vision of Northwestern basketball senior night 2013.