Men’s Basketball: Cats win season opener without Coble

Danny Daly

Even the absence of leading scorer Kevin Coble couldn’t stop Northwestern from starting the new season off on the right foot.

Senior guard Jeremy Nash scored 20 points, sophomore center Luka Mirkovic added 12 down low and NU came away with a decisive 77-55 home victory over Northern Illinois.

“It was a really good first game,” coach Bill Carmody said. “That’s a solid (Mid-American Conference) team, and I hope it gives our guys some confidence.”

The Wildcats fell behind early, trailing 16-11 after eight-and-a-half minutes had elapsed. But a 15-1 stretch put them ahead for good, and they extended their lead to 14 points by halftime.

A major factor in NU’s surge was its ability to get the ball inside. It helped that Northern Illinois center Sean Kowal picked up two fouls in the first four minutes, forcing him to the bench.

“It really did hurt them that he was out of there, because we got that lead in the last eight minutes (of the first half),” Carmody said.

When Kowal was in, he was effective, finishing with eight points on 4-of-5 shooting and four rebounds. But he played only 18 minutes because he picked up those early fouls.

Layups and free throws accounted for 12 straight points late in the first half, and the Cats finished the game with 48 attempts from the foul line – their most during Carmody’s 10-year tenure and 17 more than they had in any game last season. NU made 34 of those shots and was in the bonus for more than 24 minutes, including at least 10 in each half.

“We saw a lot of openings on the inside, that’s how we got them in foul trouble,” junior guard Michael Thompson said. “Kyle Rowley and Mirkovic did a great job on the inside.”

The arc of the second half was similar to that of the first. The Huskies cut the deficit to 42-34 early, but Kowal picked up his fourth foul with 15:45 left and had to take another break. That effectively ended Northern Illinois’ comeback bid, as NU put the game away with a 10-1 run in less than three minutes.

Neither team had much success from 3-point range, combining to make 7-of-39 from long range. The Cats’ aggressive 1-3-1 zone caused problems for the Huskies, and they took advantage of their length to contest almost every shot.

“It stopped some of their drives,” Carmody said. “It slowed them down and they were a little more hesitant. For a stretch there, it just seemed like they got the ball and just put their head down and beat us. We had to do something about that.”

Meanwhile, Northern Illinois switched from man-to-man to a 3-2 zone when Kowal got in foul trouble, which helped take away the perimeter but opened up the post.

“We changed just to protect guys, particularly in the second half,” Huskies coach Ricardo Patton said. “We just thought we had to zone up to keep guys on the floor.”

The Cats displayed their physicality on the glass, outrebounding the Huskies 38-33. NU also threw down three dunks, including an alley-oop from senior Jeff Ryan to junior Mike Capocci.

The other dunks were the product of fastbreaks created by Northern Illinois’ mistakes. It turned the ball over 17 times, including four on steals by Nash, and the Cats thrived with the quicker pace.

“In our scrimmages, all we’ve been doing is pushing each other, pushing the ball, trying to take all the options that we’ve got instead of just slowing it down every time,” Nash said. “Hopefully you’ll see a lot more of it to come.”

Thirteen different players saw the floor for the Cats, with seven of them playing more than 10 minutes. Sophomore forward John Shurna scored all of his 11 points after intermission, having rode the bench with two fouls for most of the first half. Though he struggled from beyond the arc, Thompson managed to score in double figures, tallying 12 points and committing no turnovers.

NU’s next game is Wednesday at home against No. 10 Butler. Getting to play a talented opponent like Northern Illinois to begin the year helped NU tune up before facing a top-ranked team.

“I’m actually glad we did play a team like that,” Thompson said. “They’re a pretty good team, they have a pretty good coach, so that’s going to help us get us prepared for Butler.”[email protected]