Over the hump’ at last (Men’s Basketball)

Scott Duncan

After suffering two close losses on the road last week, Northwestern coach Bill Carmody said his team needed to “get over the hump.”

The Wildcats responded.

Back on its home court, NU (13-12, 5-8 Big Ten) outplayed Wisconsin (18-8, 8-5) Thursday night, as the Cats moved back above .500 and kept their postseason hopes alive with a 62-51 victory over the Badgers at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“Every win is important to us,” senior forward Vedran Vukusic said. “There was a sense of urgency that we need to start winning. We needed to take that extra step, play for all 40 (minutes).”

It was a complete game for the Cats.

NU used a combination of suffocating defense, gritty rebounding, timely free-throw shooting and a career night from senior guard Mohamed Hachad.

The NU 1-3-1 defense appeared to cause problems for the Badgers. Wisconsin forward Alando Tucker and guard Kammron Taylor, who entered Wednesday averaging a combined 34.5 points per game, scored a total of 25.

NU won the rebounding battle for just the second time in conference play.

The Cats finished with a one-rebound advantage against the Badgers, which outrebounded NU 40-28 the last time these teams met on Jan. 14.

Forward Tim Doyle and 5-foot-9 guard Michael Jenkins each collected six rebounds to lead the Cats, and Hachad and Vukusic both pulled down five.

“We didn’t get killed off the backboards,” Carmody said. “I thought that was really important. If we didn’t get outrebounded, I thought we could hang with these guys.”

At the free-throw line, NU missed six of its first nine attempts, but the Cats made 15 straight foul shots to close the game.

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said the Cats’ performance at the line kept the Badgers from catching NU in the last 10 minutes of the game.

The Cats shot 75 percent from the free-throw line, while the Badgers made just 50 percent for the game.

“The key is to not get behind,” Ryan said of NU’s impressive free-throw shooting to close the game.

And it was the performance of Hachad that put NU ahead early in the game.

The senior guard cut and slashed to the basket all night, scoring 20 of his career-high 25 points from inside the paint.

After Taylor scored on a layup to give Wisconsin an 11-9 lead with 14:20 remaining in the first half, Hachad answered with a drive of his own to tie the game.

NU never trailed again.

“We got a good start from Vedran, and then after that Mohamed took over,” Carmody said.

Vukusic made his first two field goal attempts, including the 203rd 3-pointer of his career to tie the NU career record held by Todd Leslie. He scored 13 points for the game.

With NU up by seven points with 1:57 remaining, Wisconsin opted for a press to try to force NU into turnovers.

The defensive change rattled the Cats, as they were forced to call two timeouts on the same possession.

After the second timeout, Vukusic could not handle the inbound pass and Wisconsin regained possession.

NU struggled against the press for the remainder of the game. But despite three NU turnovers in the final two minutes, the Badgers were only able to cut the lead to five, and the Cats held on for the win.

“We needed this win to get started,” Vukusic said. “It was a good win against a good opponent. It’s definitely a confidence booster for us.”

After avenging the loss to Wisconsin on Thursday, NU will get another second chance Saturday against Penn State, which defeated the Cats in Evanston early in the season.

The Nittany Lions spoiled NU’s chance of starting the conference season 3-0 with the 66-62 win in January.

“I haven’t won (at Penn State) in my five years here,” Vukusic said. “It’s going to be a tough game. They are a lot better than they have been in past years. We’re looking forward to a rematch.”

Reach Scott Duncan at [email protected]