Men’s Basketball: Cats lose late lead, knocked out of Big Ten tourney

Matt Forman

Updated March 12, 4:13p.m. INDIANAPOLIS – Holding their first lead in almost 30 minutes, at 49-47, the Wildcats held the ball with a little more than six minutes to play in the second half. As Jeremy Nash cut under the basket on a backdoor cut, junior forward Kevin Coble found him on the right block. Instead of spinning for the quick turnaround layup, Nash kicked the ball out beyond the arc to extend the possession.

Thirty seconds later, Northwestern (17-13) was called for a shot clock violation. As the buzzer sounded, the Cats were forced to go on the defensive. And they played like it the rest of the game, falling 66-53 to Minnesota on Thursday in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse.

“Big plays just sort of took over,” Coach Bill Carmody said.

On the ensuing possession, Minnesota (22-9) got a big play. Freshman forward Ralph Sampson III converted a 3-point play, propelling the Golden Gophers on a 14-0 run to put the game away. NU went scoreless for more than four minutes during that stretch.

“The score was kind of 0-0 with five minutes to go in the game, and I think that’s a pretty good position for us,” Coble said. “I think we’re going to win most of the games when we’re in that situation.”

NU took the 49-47 lead when sophomore Michael “Juice” Thompson accepted a pass at the top of the key with the shot clock winding down. As his defender over-committed, Thompson exploded down the lane, and threw up a desperation, off-balance layup high off the glass.

“That’s actually part of our offense, it’s exactly what you do, but not that circus shot,” Carmody said.

But for much of the first half, it looked like NU would never hold a late lead.

The Cats fell in an early 22-8 hole, shooting just 3-of-12 from the floor. NU finished the half scoring 17 of the game’s next 26 points. The biggest of the Cats’ points before intermission came as the game clock expired.

Just after Minnesota’s Devron Bostick connected on two free throw attempts with 5.5 seconds remaining in the first half, Coble accepted an entry pass from senior Craig Moore. Coble (6-of-11 for 21 points) ran the length of the floor, pulled up at the 3-point line, pump-faked and converted the off-balance long-distance shot, bringing the score to 31-25 at the half.

“We felt as if we played a terrible first half,” said Thompson, who finished with eight points on 3-of-9 shooting. “But that shot gave us the confidence to play the way we did in the second half and cut the lead to six.”

With the momentum-altering play in their favor, the Cats went on a 10-0 run midway through the second half, capped by Thompson’s acrobatic layup.

Taking the lead was one story, but holding onto it was another. NU turned the ball over once, had three shots blocked, missed three free throws and went 1-of-9 the rest of the way.

Only one NU player scored in double figures. Senior guard Craig Moore, the school’s career 3-point leader, shot just 2-of-14 from beyond the arc for eight points.

“I don’t know, I’m not sure to tell you the truth,” Carmody said of the reason for Moore’s inconsistent shooting. “I thought he got some pretty decent looks, ones that he makes often.”

The loss all but eliminates NU’s chances of an NCAA Tournament at-large berth. But the Cats are still hoping to make a post-season appearance in the NIT or CBI.

“It would be really good for us in terms that we haven’t been a traditional post-season team,” Coble said. “We feel we’re in a good position.”

NU has never made the NCAA Tournament and last played in the NIT in 1999.

Regardless of if, where and when the Cats play their next game, one thing is sure – they won’t give up – and they didn’t, despite trailing by as many as 14 points.

“This game shows our resiliency, our heart and the type of guys that we have on this team,” Coble said. “I’m not sure how many teams could go through what we’ve been through. You can never tell whether we won or lost the last game. That says a lot about how we go about our business.”

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