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After years of bad injury luck, Aaron Falzon got his chance and ran with it

The former freshman standout is finally healthy and stepped up with an unexpected explosion against Indiana.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Northwestern Nuccio DiNuzzo-USA TODAY Sports

EVANSTON, Ill. — It had been three years and 13 days since Aaron Falzon had a 20-point game in a Northwestern uniform.

Back on Jan 9, 2016, when NCAA Tournament berths and Welsh-Ryan Arena renovations were nothing more than dreams, Falzon continued a strong start to his true freshman season by hitting six threes in a road win over Minnesota. It was already the ninth multiple-three game of his fledgling career; the four-star recruit had quickly become a key member of Chris Collins’ starting lineup. He’d go on to hit 63 threes that year, second-most by a freshman in school history.

So if a Northwestern basketball fan had gone into a coma after the 2015-16 season and woken up to watch the Wildcats play Indiana on Tuesday night, they wouldn’t have been surprised to see Falzon hit six of seven three-point attempts, score 21 points and lead Northwestern to an important victory. They’d assume that’s been a regular occurrence for the past three seasons, that he has blossomed into a star and is on pace to go down as one of NU’s most prolific long-range shooters ever.

Unfortunately, Falzon’s career hasn’t played out that way.

He suffered a knee injury prior to his sophomore campaign and saw limited action in three games before deciding to shut it down and get season-ending surgery. That meant Falzon was limited to cheering from the bench as his teammates broke through and made history. His knee injury lingered into the start of last season, one in which he also battled through nagging hip and back ailments to play in 27 games. Falzon showed off his elite shooting ability in flashes, but saw a smaller role as he clearly wasn’t the same player he was as a freshman.

In another cruel turn of events, Falzon missed the first ten games of this season with an ankle injury. Once healthy, he couldn’t crack the rotation on a team trying to develop the two four-star freshmen wings it added in the offseason. Heading into Tuesday’s rematch with Indiana, he had played a total of 19 minutes—almost exclusively in garbage time—over three games since Dec. 17, scoring just six points.

For Falzon, it was frustrating not to be seeing the floor after all he had done to get healthy. Yet he kept working: staying after practice to get extra shots up, doing extra conditioning drills, trying to maintain a positive attitude. Collins had several conversations with him, imploring him to stay ready, reminding him that his moment would come.

“I just kept telling him ‘Aaron, I know you’re frustrated, I know you want to get out there, I haven’t forgotten about you,’” Collins said. “Just please stay ready. I was telling him I’ve been doing this for 20-some years, things happen. Guys get injured, guys get sick, there’s foul trouble, there’s a game where there’s no energy, I just want you to be ready when you’re called upon.”

Leading up to the game, it was announced that Pete Nance—one of the freshmen blocking Falzon’s path to playing time—would be out indefinitely with an illness. That led Collins to pull Falzon aside and tell him, in short, tonight’s the night.

With 8:50 remaining in the first half, Northwestern trailed 20-13 and was threatening to drop another home game and fall to 2-6 in Big Ten play. Sure enough, Collins turned to Falzon in a close game for the first time all year, hoping he could provide a spark to a struggling offense. Not long after his entrance, the Wildcats ran a play for the redshirt junior. Falzon curled off a Dererk Pardon screen, caught a pass from Ryan Taylor and spun towards the basket. He rose up with the urgency of someone who had been waiting far too long for this chance, with a confidence that made it impossible to tell he was seeing his first meaningful action in over ten months. The shot was pure.

A few scoreless possessions later, Falzon let it fly again, this time from two feet beyond the arc. Like the first one, it was good from the moment it left his hands. He ran back down the court with a huge smile on his face, received a quick celebratory chest bump from Pardon—a fellow class of 2015 signee—and got ready to play defense. He had doubled his point total from the entire season in just three minutes.

“The first one I hit, as clean as it went in, I thought I was on right away,” Falzon said. “The second one just confirmed it. At that point it’s just about me getting open and getting to my spot, and I just felt like I was in the zone after that.”

His third attempt actually missed everything, an airball Falzon attributed to a brief moment of fatigue arising from his first extended playing time. The miss did nothing to shake his confidence; after regaining his breath during a TV timeout, Falzon took another catch-and-shoot three and drilled it. He led all scorers at the half with nine points in just nine minutes and was the main reason NU went on a 15-4 run before the break.

Collins didn’t wait nearly as long to get Falzon on the floor in the second half. That was smart, because the Newton, Massachusetts, native went nuclear upon returning. He scored 12 points in 2:28 of game time, helping turn a 37-34 lead into a 52-38 advantage that Northwestern wouldn’t relinquish. Falzon went 3 for 3 from deep during that stretch, including a friendly bounce on one he thought he missed and a rushed attempt from the corner to beat the shot clock. He was also fouled on a shot, and calmly walked to the line and drilled all three free throws.

“I’ve been in a zone like that a lot of times in my life, but the past two, three years it’s been harder to get it here with injuries and stuff,” Falzon said. “Sometimes I get it in practice or I get it in the offseason, but getting it in the game is the ultimate rush, the ultimate feeling. It just feels like everything you put up is gonna go in.”

Each successive make sent the Welsh-Ryan crowd into a frenzy. Each one sent Falzon back down the court grinning from ear to ear, finally experiencing that ultimate rush once again.

“It means everything to me,” Falzon said of having a night like that after all the adversity he’s faced. “I’ve been down a lot since the injuries...It’s really, really hard for a young kid like me to be patient and wait on your moment, but you gotta believe. Every day I would come and shoot and try to get extra workouts in, and hopefully one day my day would come. Today it came and I was ready for the moment.”

Falzon’s performance also brought joy to everyone who’s been around him and saw what it took for him to get back to full health. A beaming Pardon said after the game that he felt like he was the one making the shots when Falzon’s threes were falling. Northwestern’s bench, led by the always-entertaining Barret Benson, went nuts over the success of a teammate who has spent most of the last two-and-a-half seasons watching alongside them. And few were prouder than the coach who recruited Falzon when he was at Northfield Mount Hermon and has seen his mindset and work ethic remain strong amidst injuries that derailed a promising trajectory.

“I got emotional when I was talking to the BTN guys after the game,” Collins said. “Because that’s how much I care about the kid. He loves to play basketball, he loves to be in the gym. He cares so much...It’s absolutely killed me for these last two years to not see him be at the level that I saw him at in high school, that I saw him at as a freshman.”

“I’m so proud of that kid for him to have this kind of night, to help us win a huge game we needed to win.”

It was a win that could inject new life into Northwestern’s disappointing season. This group of Wildcats now has consecutive Big Ten victories for the first time and sits at 3-5 in conference play with 12 games to go. If Falzon—who said he felt really healthy for the first time in a long time—can continue to be a threat from deep, he could add another element to an offense that came into Tuesday’s game with the fourth-worst three-point percentage in the Big Ten. He’ll get another shot to prove himself this weekend in a big road game against Wisconsin.

“He’s going to get another chance on Saturday,” Collins said. “He’s definitely earned that. Pete’s gonna be out for a while, so he’s gonna have opportunities.”

Don’t expect Falzon to be satisfied with the taste of big-time action he got against Indiana. Given everything he’s gone through since his freshman year, he’ll be ready to take advantage of every minute that comes his way going forward. The rush of success is an addictive one.

Falzon’s three-year, 13-day journey between 20-point outings wasn’t easy or ideal, but on one night in Evanston, he seized the moment and reminded everyone what it looks like when he gets in a zone. With over a dozen games remaining in a season that suddenly doesn’t look dead and buried just yet, plus one more year of eligibility, there’s still time for the former freshman standout to rewrite the narrative of his Northwestern career.