Unlikely hero in unlikely win (Jim Martinho column)

Jim Martinho

Wow. I didn’t think it was possible, but I just watched a Northwestern basketball game that made it worth missing “The O.C.”

NU’s electrifying 70-60 upset of in-state rival Illinois ranked up there with the team’s most impressive wins since the Evan Eschmeyer era and ended with fans storming the court. I had to restrain myself from joining them. But without a pickup game of HORSE and an unlikely hero, it might never have happened.

After the Cats’ road win over Iowa on Saturday and the transfer of Duke center Michael Thompson on Monday, the basketball Gods finally seemed to be smiling on Evanston. Then, with one lightning bolt at the end of the first half, they struck down all our joy with an old, dirty trick — yet another injury to forward Vedran Vukusic, this time it was his knee.

The air went out of the arena, and NU went into halftime depressed and down 38-29. But just when the Cats of yore would have rolled over and died, fellow Croatian Davor Duvancic pulled a rabbit out of his hat that would rival anything David Copperfield has to offer — finishing with 22 points (17 after the break) on 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc.

“He picked up right where his countryman left off,” coach Bill Carmody said.

Words (at least English) fall short in trying to describe Duvancic’s second-half performance. A short summary: He scored the Cats’ first seven points after the break to keep NU in the game. He stifled a short Fighting Illini run with a 3-pointer. He alertly tipped a rebound out to Jitim Young to start a fast break that resulted in the Cats’ first lead. Then, to top it all off, he hoisted up a trey from the corner that bounced off the back of the rim straight into the sky, hung for what seemed like an eternity while Illini hands swatted at the air beneath, and dropped through the net.

After fittingly grabbing the rebound on NU’s final defensive stand, sealing the game, Duvancic finally relaxed and a smile spread over his face the size of the Atlantic that separates him, Vukusic and Ivan Tolic from their home country.

It left us asking one question: Where exactly did this come from?

Duvancic hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire in his two-plus seasons at NU. He often looked lost on the court, was frequently called for traveling violations on his awkward drives to the basket, and lacked the smooth shooting stroke of friend and roommate Vukusic.

In fact, Duvancic’s previous career high of 20 points came in the second half of NU’s 2003 Big Ten tournament loss to Illinois — and that came in garbage time against second-stringers.

But Duvancic went to the huddle in the second half and said he thought he could exploit his matchup with 7-foot-2 Nick Smith — and he wasn’t shy about taking long-range shots, thanks to a recent confidence boost.

“I played a game of HORSE with Evan Seacat before the game,” Duvancic said. “I didn’t win, but keeping it close against a great shooter like Evan gave me the confidence to shoot the three.”

My only qualm with Duvancic was that he cut off most of the Beatlesque mop-top he had before Winter Break. If the Cats are the Beatles, then Davor is Ringo.

But he was the star of a night that saw sold-out Welsh-Ryan rocking with an atmosphere that could stand toe-to-toe with any arena in the Big Ten, or the nation. The sight and sound of NU fans trying to out-cheer the large Illini contingent was a unique experience, especially because the purple and white came out on top against the annoying school from downstate.

Duvancic’s recent play (he scored 14 Saturday) has coincided with the Cats’ surprising Big Ten start. NU is now tied for first place in the conference (no, that’s not a typo), and the Illinois game should finally excite fans enough to bring them out to games on cold winter’s nights.

Behind Duvancic, the second-happiest person in the arena was probably his girlfriend, NU volleyball player Leah Delcourt, who sported a homemade #31 jersey.

So, for this Wednesday night at least, the Leah and Davor show outshined Ryan and Marissa. And that’s no small feat — almost as tough as beating Evan Seacat in HORSE.

Online Editor Jim Martinho taped “The O.C.” He can be reached at [email protected]