Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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One year later, it’s Wolves or bust

The Wildcats are all too familiar with the alley-oop. Again and again, Northwestern has seen better athletes from better teams go up for rim-rocking, crowd-rousing dunks that seal blowout losses. For NU, the alley-oop is not a good thing.

Except for one day, that is.

Exactly 11 months ago, sophomore guard Collier Drayton lobbed the ball high into the air, and sophomore power forward Tavaras Hardy reached back behind him with one hand and tipped the ball into the hoop.

That play knotted NU and Michigan at 45 with 4:07 to go in regulation and sent a barely half-full Welsh-Ryan Arena into a frenzy. The Cats had stomached an awful season, losing all 13 Big Ten games they had played — and most of them weren’t close, either.

“We were tired of the wear and tear of the season,” said current sophomore forward Jason Burke, who called last season’s contest one of the most exciting he’s ever played in. “We were getting beat down and we were sick and tired of it. We were like, ‘Here we have to make a stand and get things going.’

“The crowd was so loud I couldn’t even hear myself talking to the other players.”

So it was something to celebrate when NU stormed back from an atrocious first half in which it shot 19.2 percent from the field and got outscored 31-15. The alley-oop capped a 10-0 run that saw the Cats climb from their normal double-digit deficit to an even score in just 5:23.

But the Cats would lose 61-55 in overtime after blowing layup and rebound opportunities in the extra period. It was the 19th and closest loss of a mind-boggling 29-game conference losing streak that ties NU for the longest post-1946 Big Ten losing streak. The co-owner of the streak: NU again, during a stretch from 1990-1992.

So who comes to Evanston to try and tack on loss No. 30?

Michigan, of course. The Wolverines (8-9, 2-4 Big Ten) will meet the Cats (7-12, 0-7) for the first time this year at 7 p.m. Saturday at Welsh-Ryan Arena, looking to put this NU squad in the record books all by itself.

This year, Michigan — which is coming off a 55-51 loss to No. 7 Illinois on Thursday — once again might be the Cats’ best chance to end the streak.

But NU — at least, the seven players who remain from last season — can’t help but look back at the nearest of all misses.

After tying the Wolverines with four minutes left, NU fell behind by two points, and it stayed that way until Michigan big man Chris Young fouled Hardy with 1.6 seconds to play in regulation. The Wolverines took a timeout to ice Hardy and forced former NU coach Kevin O’Neill to conjure up something to tell his players.

“‘T, imagine you’re back in your childhood,'” O’Neill recalled with a laugh in the postgame news conference. “‘You always envisioned being in this position.'”

But O’Neill’s former players remember the truth. They vividly recall the huddle on the sideline, the final few minutes and an agonizing overtime jam-packed with what-ifs.

“I remember K.O. saying, ‘Leave Tavaras alone, don’t say anything to him.’ And he was off doing his own thing while we were in the huddle,” Burke said. “It seems like yesterday, and then it seems like so long ago because we’ve had so many changes — new coaches, new players — but I still remember it like it was yesterday.”

Hardy nailed the free throws, but they didn’t matter. NU, which shot 0-for-16 from three-point range, didn’t have the firepower in overtime to come up with one final burst.

No surprise there, though. The last 11 months have offered more of the same: Two additional regular-season losses and one conference-tournament loss ended the disastrous O’Neill era; seven conference losses this year have opened the Bill Carmody era. Now the Cats are in the unenviable position of trying to dodge the title of Big Ten laughingstock.

And even with this year’s blown 14-point lead at Penn State to think about, NU still believes the Wolverines were the team that could have been the one.

“That’s definitely as close as we’ve come,” Hardy said. “We just didn’t finish it up down the stretch.

“Everything seems like so long ago, but we’re still trying to play, still trying to come up with a win.”

And now the challenge is doubly difficult. The Cats must figure out how to top both Michigan and their own history — a loss will place them where no team has been in 55 years.

The burden of two years of losing has weighed heavily on the Cats’ shoulders, but hasn’t quite destroyed the optimism they have displayed all year. Seeing Michigan next on the schedule — after coming so close a year ago — has rekindled that hope. Still, the threat of being remembered in such a negative light isn’t a thought NU wants to entertain.

“Hopefully throughout the rest of this year and next year, we’ll go 29-0 the other way,” Burke said. “Of course you don’t want to be in the history books. But if you are, so be it.”

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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881
One year later, it’s Wolves or bust