Last month I listed the top 10 Northwestern basketball games of the 2000s. A number of those were games which, even though they occurred years ago, fans still talk about today. Tonight’s Wildcat victory over sixth-ranked Purdue will no doubt be another contest fans will talk about for years to come. It was a win which included contributions from all throughout the Wildcat roster. From guys you expect to play well in big wins like Michael “Juice” Thompson to surprises like Kyle Rowley. It also came at a time when the Wildcat program was teetering on the brink on slipping from early season ranked team to NIT-bubble resident. The ‘Cats might not get their ranking back after this win, but at least they have a win over a top-25 program which boosts their NCAA Tournament credibility.
The first half of the today’s game ended with NU holding a 26-25 lead. It was a sloppy first half with nine Northwestern turnovers, but the ‘Cats had done a few small things which setup their second half success. First off, they attacked the paint with Luka Mirkovic. Mirkovic’s ability to get a couple early baskets forced Purdue center JaJuan Johnson into foul trouble. In fact, Johnson didn’t even start the second half because of three fouls. NU also hit the glass aggressively. Kyle Rowley, who has taken a lot of criticism of late, came up big with 4 rebounds in the first half to help NU to a double-digit rebound advantage. Rowley also made four big free throws. Looking closely, it appears Rowley has worked hard at the line. He’s changed his shot to have less of an arc and now it looks much more likely to fall into the net instead of bricking on the back of the iron.
With NU’s centers having helped establish Wildcat inside dominance in the first half, NU started the second half attacking Purdue in the paint with Johnson on the bench. Luka Mirkovic picked up one of his two assists on a slick pass to Jeremy Nash and Mirkovic himself got an early second half look from Juice Thompson. Purdue then put Johnson back in the game and would eventually take the lead away from NU, but that was when NU’s backcourt started making a difference.
Thompson was NU’s leading scorer in the contest with 20 points. Three came when he converted a three point play to help the Wildcats answer a Purdue run on an amazing backdoor pass from Drew Crawford. Speaking of Crawford, when Purdue claimed a 50-48 lead and had NU inbounding with only 2 seconds left on the shot clock, momentum seemed about to swing Purdue’s way. However, Crawford got a huge screen from Jeremy Nash and found himself wide open to drill a three which gave the momentum back to NU.
A few moments later another Wildcat stepped up. Jeremy Nash made a one point game a three point game when he forced one of only six Purdue turnovers by jumping a pass and going all the way to the hoop for a layup. Shortly after that layup, Crawford made another big three with the shot clock running down to get NU up five and added a big three point play when he crossed over Purdue guard Ryne Smith and took the ball to the basket with authority.
To Purdue’s credit, the Boilers never gave up. But with the clock running down, and Purdue desperately trying to foul, the Wildcats went back to Luka Mirkovic when Juice dribbled around the defense and found the 6-11 center in a spread court situation with just over 18 seconds left. It should also be noted big free throws from Juice, Luka, Crawford, and Nash also helped NU salt away the game late. NU made 26-of-30 free throws in this game, almost the exact opposite of Wednesday against Wisconsin. If you look closely you’ll seen that when NU hits free throws (like today and at Michigan) they win Big Ten games. When they miss, they don’t. NU’s continued ability to come through at the line will bear close scrutiny the rest of the way.
Some numbers of note besides the free throw percentage were Luka’s final totals, 16 points and 10 rebounds. Juice’s shooting, 6-of-9 overall, 2-of-2 from three, 6-of-6 from the line. Also, Drew Crawford’s overall day, 15 points, 7 rebounds, 7-of-10 free throws, 2-of-2 threes. Finally, NU’s total rebounding numbers, a 42-23 advantage, making up for the fact the ‘Cats struggled to force turnovers and get off three points. In fact, the only 4 made threes NU had were the ones from Thompson and Crawford. The rest of the ‘Cats went 0-of-7 from behind the arc.
The bottom line, though, is this win gave Northwestern’s program a much needed second January victory. If NU gets two more wins this month they’ll be in great shape to make a run to the tourney. The stat people will probably contesting mention is the fact this is Northwestern’s first home win over a top-10 team since beating Michigan 97-93 in overtime at the end of the 1994 regular season. What I think is important is what this game does for NU’s collective psyche. After Wednesday, Northwestern was 0-2 at home in the Big Ten. That had to weigh on a team that knows very well winning at home is the key to making the Big Dance. Also, the ‘Cats also hadn’t recorded a truly big win in their previous 12 victories. Now, they have a marquee victory. Trust me, in the end Purdue might not be top-10 material, but they’ll finish in the top-25. From a fan’s perspective, it was also nice to see the ‘Cats give a big home crowd something to cheer about and a reason to rush the floor.