INDIANAPOLIS – The moment had come. Yes, that moment had come.
Northwestern had hung with Iowa for much of Thursday’s first half, but after three consecutive Jared Uthoff 3-pointers, and then a Roy Devyn Marble bucket plus a foul, it seemed the tipping point had arrived. At the under-four timeout, Northwestern’s Big Ten tournament opener hung in the balance – and thus, so did its season.
“I thought that might have been the biggest four minutes of the game,” coach Chris Collins said. “They had a chance to kind of run away from us a little bit.” And that’s what the Hawkeyes were beginning to do.
Throughout the season, it’s been periods of games, stretches just like these that have plagued Northwestern. Think back to the non-conference season; to Stanford, to Missouri. Think back to Michigan, to Michigan State (in East Lansing), to Ohio State, and perhaps most relevantly, to both previous meetings with this Iowa team.
In all those instances, when this tipping point came – when pressure arose, and when the game looked to be slipping from the Wildcats’ paws – Northwestern crumbled. It became flustered, unable to deal with swings in momentum.
Thursday was different. “Basketball is a game of runs,” said senior forward Drew Crawford. “There’s always going to be teams going on runs against you, and you have to be able to deal with adversity. You can’t let one big play by the other team turn into a string of plays. Tonight, we did a great job of shifting that momentum.”
In the specific timeout in question, with Iowa poised to go up 28-21 after Marble’s free throw with under four minutes remaining in the first half, Collins said he settled his team, and “we talked about trying to play a good four minutes to get some momentum heading into the second half.” And for what seemed like the first time all season, the players responded.
Tre Demps initiated the Wildcats’ resistance with a driving layup to cut the lead to five, and capped it off with a high-arching, off-balance 3. That shot, which could be considered one of the biggest of Northwestern’s season, pulled the Wildcats level at the break.
Crawford in part credited similar previous instances throughout the season for his team’s newfound resilience. “Part of that is just the experience,” he said. “And guys getting more comfortable on the court.”
And evidence that this wasn’t just a one time phenomenon came in the second half. After NU came out of the locker room buzzing, and opened up a slender lead, it would have to withstand a lot.
But every time the Hawkeyes put that little extra weight on the gas pedal, Northwestern would just as quickly pump the break. Each time fans were forced to conjure up memories of previous collapses, players responded, and hit timely shots.
First, it was Crawford’s turn. Iowa had cut Northwestern’s lead to three, but as he’s been all year, the senior felt confident stepping into a 3. He rose up, with the weight of all in purple resting on his shoulders, and drained it.
Then it was Demps, this time with the game knotted up at 45, free on the left wing off a feed from Crawford.
And then, minutes later, twice in a one point game, it was who else but Dave Sobolewski. After struggling all game – and all season for that matter – Sobolewski made two clutch baskets with the shot clock dwindling The first was a floater over 7-1 Adam Woodbury after splitting two defenders; the second was an enormous 3 off of a Demps kick-out.
Sobolewski, however, is not one to dwell on his clutch moments. He instead credits defense for his team’s perseverance. “We take pride in our defense, and being a blue-collar team, so that’s what we look to when a team is going on a run,” he explained. “If we can string a couple stops and rebounds together, the run is over.”
Demps though recognizes the importance of his teammates’ and his own momentous shots. “When teams get on runs like that, it’s also important to make shots. Kale [Abrahamson] hit two big shots [at the end of the first half], Sanjay [Lumpkin] had a couple; when those guys get going, it motivates our whole team.”
And these moments embody the team’s end-of-season attitude that began to perk up Sunday against Purdue. “I was pleased with the way my team approached the last couple of days,” Collins said. “You can have a tendency to maybe just come here to Indy, enjoy the day, play a little ball and be done with things.
“But that’s not what they wanted to do, and that’s not who they’ve been. We played maybe our best game of the year.”
“It’s just a fighting spirit we have,” Crawford said. Knowing that this is the last time that this group is going to be together, there will be guys graduating, guys leaving, that’s really our motivation. So we’ve got to enjoy every moment we have as a group.”
Crawford and company will get a chance to extend that moment once again Friday night against Michigan State.