Saturday, January 23, 2010
State of Joy: 73-68 Victory Gives Wildcats First Win Over In-State Rival in Six Years
In a game some experts termed an NCAA Tournament elimination game, the Northwestern Wildcats persevered and hung around long enough to fight and scrap their way to a 73-68 win over the University of Illinois. That star for Northwestern was senior Jeremy Nash who earned his first career victory over the Illini by posting a career-high 22 points. Along with those points, Nash totaled 4 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 assists. He also made 9-of-10 free throws, including the final two which iced the game when Illinois cut NU’s late lead to just three points.
What made this win even better, though, was Nash wasn’t the only star. Northwestern played 10 players in the game and all seemed to make at least some small contribution to the victory. Part of the reason for Bill Carmody’s need to clear his bench was early foul trouble for Michael “Juice” Thompson and John Shurna. Juiced played his season low in minutes with only 27. He totaled only 4 points and made just 1-of-5 shots, but in the end his only made three was one of several clutch shots helped NU hold the lead after Nash put them ahead 53-52. Thompson also had 3 assists and one of those assists setup a John Shurna three which also helped NU’s efforts to ice the victory. Shurna finished the game with 19 points total. Like Nash, he made 9-of-10 free throws including a number of which helped NU hold off Illinois.
Another Wildcat who deserves some credit is freshman guard Drew Crawford. Northwestern actually got out to an early lead thanks to 9 early points from Crawford. A couple of those came on drives which showed why some believe Crawford is Northwestern’s most athletic recruit ever.
Illinois took their lead with Thompson on the bench. During that period, it was a combination of guys, but especially Nash, Crawford, and Kyle Rowley who helped keep NU with in striking distance until the ‘Cats could find the range for big threes late from Nash, Thompson, and Shurna.
While Nash, Shurna, and Crawford were NU’s offensive leaders, Luka Mirkovic and Kyle Rowley provided solid efforts in the post and just enough offense. Mirkovic scored 9 points and grabbed 9 rebounds (3 offensive). Kyle Rowley came off the bench and might have played his best six minutes of the year. When Illinois was trying to make a run, Rowley made two huge baskets which ensured the game didn’t fall out of reach for NU.
NU also got solid minutes from Ivan Peljusic, Nick Fruendt, and Mike Capocci. Peljusic and Fruendt more or less just helped keep the game close by not making mistakes. Capocci did the same, but also has to get a major thumbs-up for getting two rebounds, including an offensive rebound which setup a big three, in just six minutes.
One interesting statistical note from the contest was Northwestern won despite allowing Illinois to shoot 55.3%. Even more amazing was that NU only shot 40.4% and made just 7-of-28 threes. NU was able to win despite these stats because they got more offensive rebounds than U of I (10 to 6) and because Northwestern was able to force Illinois to take more difficult shots than they did in Champaign. Yes, the Illini’s guards got some easy drives and open threes, but Mike Tisdale only took 6 shots and Mike Davis only took 6. Those two combined for 51 points in Champaign. Today they got only 14 points (all from Tisdale). Davis scored 0 points and got only 2 rebounds. Credit for stopping U of I’s easy baskets has to got to go to NU’s ability to consistently and successfully change defenses. It looked like U of I was never totally sure what defense NU was playing. That led to 16 Illinois turnovers which also contributed to keeping NU in the game until they made their run.
A few highlight plays from the game included John Shurna throwing down a two-handed dunk on back door pass from Luka Mirkovic. Credit to Coach Carmody for coming up with that play. Also, a great play by Juice Thompson to take a charge from Brandon Paul when NU needed a key stop. Kyle Rowley’s two baskets also showed some of the best footwork on his career and came at key times. I believe we might be seeing signs of a very positive future from Rowley based on his last three games. Finally, I have to say the three by Jeremy Nash which gave NU the 53-52 lead has to be the game’s biggest shot. It was big not just because it gave NU the lead, but because the way Welsh-Ryan Arena erupted after that shot was unbelievable. It might have been the loudest Welsh-Ryan has gotten since March of 1994 when NU defeated DePaul in the NIT. If Welsh-Ryan is like that in NU’s last six home games, I think Northwestern might have one of the best home court advantages in the nation.