Butler’s bum knee puts Cats in a pickle

Andrea Cohen

Emily Butler said her knee “kinda hurt” when the Northwestern women’s basketball team played the first of its three games over Thanksgiving break, but “as long as it was warm, it was fine.”

At practice on Thursday, the Wildcats’ starting point guard was no longer concerned with keeping her knee warm — sitting on the sidelines, she was more worried about keeping it elevated and iced.

Butler warmed up and played through the pain in the team’s Nov. 21 loss to Miami, Fla. — scoring 20 points in the process — and played again in a 71-53 loss to Florida International on Nov. 23, scoring just four points.

But in the second half of NU’s final game of the Florida International Thanksgiving Classic, Butler heard the sounds that every athlete dreads.

“I heard a pop and a crunch,” Butler said. “I came out for a couple of minutes, then went back in. But (my knee) really didn’t feel right, and it really, really hurt.”

Doctors think Butler suffered a slight tear in her anterior cruciate ligament with some cartilage damage, according to NU head coach June Olkowski. Butler will seek a second opinion before a decision regarding surgery is made.

Butler missed Tuesday’s game against

DePaul, and Olkowski does not know how long NU’s leading scorer will be out of action. Olkowski said the absence of the team’s only player with conference honors — Butler was an honorable-mention All-Big Ten selection last year — will mean big changes for the Cats.

“When you lose your best player, it’s obviously a big deal,” Olkowski said. “We have no choice but to respond positively.”

For now, Butler is limping around practices and cheering from the sidelines — especially for freshman Melissa Culver, who will be starting at the point.

“I have lots of confidence in Mo’s ability,” Butler said of her replacement. “It’s good for her, and if I come back and she can start, I can slide into the (shooting-guard position).”

Culver has excelled at times in the Cats’ first five games, but she also has shown her youth, making some rookie mistakes. She has seen significant court time in every game this season, but her first start came against DePaul. The Cats had trouble protecting the ball against the Blue Demons, continuing a season-long turnover binge — they have yet to play a game with fewer than 20.

“Melissa is quite capable,” Olkowski said. “I recruited her not to play backup to anybody, and I told her that. This is an opportunity she can seize.”

Culver said that “filling Emily’s shoes will be hard,” but after this week’s practices, she is feeling increasingly comfortable taking over the helm. Besides, she has Butler to help her from the sidelines.

“Hopefully, this won’t hurt us too much,” junior center Leslie Dolland said. “Obviously Emily plays a big role, and this will cause the underclassmen to step up. But Emily will do her part on the bench to help Mo through stuff.”

According to Olkowski, every NU player needs to step up in Butler’s absence, not just Culver.

They will have their first opportunity to do so tonight at 6 p.m. at Welsh-Ryan Arena against the Hofstra Pride in the first game of the Roger L. White Invitational, which the Cats host through Saturday.