This has nothing to do with analysis, but the last 9:33 of today’s Big Ten basketball game between Northwestern and Minnesota was the most fun I’ve had at a sporting event in a long time. From Luka Mirkovic’s steal and layup, to great rebounds by Drew Crawford and Luka, to Michael “Juice” Thompson hitting big threes and making great passes and clutch free throws (Luka made a number of clutch free throws as well), the Wildcats were able to bring the fans at Welsh-Ryan to their feet a remarkable number of times in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime. It wasn’t exactly Jeremy Nash putting the ‘Cats ahead against Illinois, but Welsh-Ryan was loud and proud in urging the ‘Cats to victory today. Hopefully, the NU fans (and especially the students) will show up on Wednesday when the ‘Cats host a winless in the Big Ten, but talented, Penn State squad. That game will give the ‘Cats a chance at a school-record tying 18th win, but it’s only because the ‘Cats came back from 13-points down to win today.
For almost ¾ of today’s game, Northwestern didn’t look much better than they did at Iowa on Wednesday, but the light went on in the final five minutes of regulation and in overtime for the ‘Cats to capture the victory. I’m found of saying, “games are won and lost in the last five minutes,” my friends and family often make fun of me for repeating this mantra, but today proves my point. The ‘Cats were bad for about 35 minutes today. They struggled to deny entry passes to Ralph Sampson III and Paul Carter, they let the Gophers get open look for three, and found themselves down double digits in the second half. Thankfully, the ‘Cats woke up late. I don’t know what caused it, but Luka Mirkovic appeared from nowhere to practically take the game over late. A guy who NU need to put out an APB for after Wednesday and today’s first half, Luka got NU back into the game with a huge steal and layup to make the game 52-50. He then caught a pass of a Michael “Juice” Thompson drive and hit a three to put NU ahead 53-52 late in the game. NU couldn’t hold that lead, thanks to a Blake Hoffarber three Minnesota sent the game to OT at 57-57, but in OT Luka and Juice went a combined 12-for-12 from the free throw line to allow NU to hold off the Gophers. Minnesota managed to consistently make shots and force NU to shoot pressure free throws down the stretch, but NU made every free throw with the game on the line.
Luka Mirkovic had a very quiet first half (as did most of NU’s players), but overall for the day Luka stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, 10 rebounds, and 4 steals. At times this year I’ve said that Jeremy Nash and Alex Marcotullio were essential players for NU’s success, but now I think it’s clear Luka Mirkovic is the most important key to NU winning. In NU’s two big wins against Michigan and Indiana, Luka had great games. Also, in NU’s only Big Ten road win, the game at Michigan, Luka scored 13 points and grabbed 8 rebounds. As the season goes down to the wire, I’ll be looking closely at how Luka plays in hoping for Wildcat success.
NU’s leading scorer in today’s game was John Shurna who finished with 22 points. Shurna’s ability to hit threes (6-of-13) kept NU in the game in the second half until they could start the comeback. Shurna also scored NU’s first basket in the overtime period. I actually think NU should have run that same play for the final shot in regulation. When Shurna gets somebody on his hip in the post he can go up and under and score with ease.
Another Wildcat who had a strong all around game was Drew Crawford. Crawford, like Luka, was somewhat quite early, but he benefited from many of Juice Thompson’s 7 assists to score 18 points. Most notable were an alley-oop layup late in regulation and an easy layup in OT, but Crawford also made his presence felt with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. The Big Ten has a number of good freshman this year, but Drew Crawford has consistently played at a high level and come up big when his team needed him in clutch situations.
Finally, credit has to go to Jeremy Nash who played 42 minutes (second to Shurna’s 45) scored 9 points, had 3 assists, and 2 steals. He also helped apply pressure to Minnesota that resulted in steals for Crawford and Luka at several key moments. Jeremy Nash is an underrated player. I sincerely hope he gets some acknowledgement when it comes to post-season all-defense honors.
NU moves to 17-8 overall. They have tied the school record for regular season wins with 17 victories. If NU can beat Penn State on Wednesday they will tie the school record for total wins and, I believe, with a record 10 game above .500, once again force themselves back into NCAA Tournament discussion.