Men’s Basketball: ‘It’s winning time’

Matt Forman

It was anything but an ordinary game.

Both teams’ leading scorers were held to 10 points or fewer. The contest featured eight lead changes, and the score was tied 11 times. Each team had at least one five-minute stretch without a field goal.

But when the dust settled at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Saturday, Northwestern (12-7, 4-5 Big Ten) had made more game-altering plays down the stretch than Wisconsin. The Wildcats won their fourth game in the last five tries over Big Ten foes, bucking the Badgers, 66-63 before a capacity crowd.

“That’s basketball,” NU senior guard Craig Moore said. “That’s Big Ten basketball at its best right there.”

Just as the game was out of the ordinary, it was a world of difference from when the teams met Jan. 7 in Madison, Wisc., a game the Badgers (12-9, 3-6) won by 29 points.

Since then, the Badgers have failed to win a single game. And this time, the Cats controlled the tempo from the opening tip to the free-throw line.

And that’s exactly where Moore found himself at the end of the game. Three times in the final 15.6 seconds of the game, the senior was put on the charity stripe to keep the lead. Six times, Moore lined up the shot. Six times, the shot fell.

Before Moore stepped to the line in the final seconds, the Cats made several big plays to put themselves in a position to win.

Trailing 52-50 with 4:07 left, freshman forward Luka Mirkovic drove from the elbow and was fouled by guard Trévon Hughes. Mirkovic sunk both free throws, tying the game for the first time in the second half. As the Cats went into the media timeout, only one thing was on their minds.

“We have a little saying: ‘winning time,'” Mirkovic said. “We went into the timeout and when coach was finished, we just said ‘winning time’ and that was it.”

Sophomore guard Michael Thompson hit two free throws of his own, giving NU a 54-53 lead. With 2:26 remaining, Moore hit junior Kevin Coble on a backdoor cut for an easy layup. Less than one minute later, Moore found Mirkovic in the lane, who took one step and brought the crowd to its feet with a silky 10-foot left-handed hook shot.

“I thought he was going to have an easy layup because somebody short was guarding him,” Moore said of Mirkovic’s shot. “I just put it up in the air and said ‘go get it big guy.'”

Badgers forward Marcus Landry put back his own miss with 1:01 left on the clock to trim the lead to one. Just as the Cats brought the ball over half-court and appeared to be settling for a shot, junior Jeremy Nash took off from the top of the key. Nash penetrated left, cut right and converted an underhand finger-roll bank around Landry with 28 seconds left.

From that point on, Moore, who finished with a game-high 26 points on 7-of-11 shooting, put the game on ice. Nash scored nine points, while Thompson, Mirkovic and Coble each added seven.

The Cats knocked down four consecutive 3-pointers to open the game, jumping out to an early 9-3 lead. The Badgers tied the game at 21 with 9:04 remaining in the opening period, but did not make a field goal again until after intermission. The teams were tied at 27 heading into halftime.

After starting conference play 0-4, the Cats have improved to 4-5 in the Big Ten and will play four of their next five at home. Still, coach Bill Carmody said there’s a lot to work on.

“This team will never get cocky,” he said. “They’re 4-5. They haven’t done enough for that.”

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