Men’s Basketball: Wildcats shock another ranked foe

Matt Forman

Northwestern proved it could defeat a top 25 team when it topped No. 17 Minnesota on Sunday.

In order to beat No. 7 Michigan State on the road, NU needed a great game from its best player.

The Wildcats (10-6, 2-4 Big Ten) got exactly that in a historic 70-63 win on Wednesday, notching its first road win over a top-10 team since 1953.

“They outplayed us in every way,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It comes down to the fact that they played better than us.”

NU won back-to-back games over ranked teams for the first time in school history. Despite shooting just 42.6 percent from the field, 32.1 percent from beyond the arc, and being outrebounded by 20, the Cats shocked the Spartans (15-3, 5-1) with a heavy dose of Kevin Coble.

“I felt great,” Coble said. “It’s a special feeling when you feel like you can’t miss.”

The junior forward scored a season-high 31 points on 10-of-16 shooting in the upset victory. He added four rebounds and four steals, one of which helped seal the victory for NU.

Holding a five-point advantage with fewer than three minutes remaining, Michigan State forced a turnover and went on a 3-on-1 break. Just as freshman guard Korie Lucious looked to hit his streaking teammate for an easy layup, Coble came out of nowhere and intercepted the errant pass.

Coble then hit his trademark shot, a turnaround fadeaway jumper that gave NU a 62-55 advantage.

“Certain guys can take bad shots,” coach Bill Carmody said. “They are bad shots for me and you, but for (Coble), he can make those.”

In addition to facing a powerhouse opponent, history was not in the Cats’ corner. NU’s last win in East Lansing, Mich., came in 1984. Since the Breslin Center opened 20 years ago, the Cats were 0-15 in the home of the “Izzone,” the menacing green-and-white student section. Izzo was 22-2 in his career against NU and led his team to 85 consecutive home wins over unranked foes.

“I’m in a bit of shock,” Coble said. “Teams don’t win here. For us to come in here and knock them off is a very special feeling.”

Coble made the difference in all facets of the game. Twice the junior left the game to take a breather. Both times, he re-entered fewer than two minutes later.

In his first exit, Michigan State went on an 8-0 run in the first half to increase their lead to four. In the second half, Coble left for all of 50 seconds after Kalin Lucas hit a reverse layup and the Cats’ offense failed to get in sync.

Even when Coble wasn’t doing the scoring, he was used as a decoy to get his teammates open shots when he was double- and triple-teamed. After a scoreless first half, senior guard Craig Moore totaled 11 points in the final frame, including two 3-pointers in the final eight minutes. Sophomore Michael “Juice” Thompson contributed 20 points, including four free throws in the final 30 seconds to put the game on ice.

“It raises everyone’s confidence level when (Coble) is shooting like that,” Thompson said. “At the same time it opens up driving lanes and takes the pressure off.”

Just over two weeks ago, NU held a one-point halftime advantage over Michigan State in Evanston. On Wednesday, the Cats went into the half down just one point despite shooting 4-of-16 from 3-point range.

A late 3-pointer by Coble and a mid-range jump shot by freshman forward Luka Mirkovic at the buzzer gave NU momentum going into intermission.

Despite being abused on the glass, the Cats were able to match the physicality the Spartans dished out.

“That was at the top of our scouting report as the headline in bold lettering: ‘Match their intensity,'” Thompson said.

The Cats did just that. With junior Jeremy Nash running the top of the 1-3-1 zone, NU managed to force 18 turnovers and register nine steals. The Spartans shot just 2-of-12 from long-distance in the second half as they tried to cut into the Cats’ lead.

Since its disappointing two-point loss at home to Purdue last Thursday, NU has won consecutive games over ranked teams, including Sunday’s nine-point win over Minnesota.

As significant as the win is, it’s been the Cats’ ability to hang on in close games that has been most impressive.

“That’s really how you win,” Coble said. “We didn’t really know how to win close games up to this point. I think this will definitely help us down the road.”

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