Men’s Basketball Gamer: NU survives scare behind Thompson’s 31-point night

Danny Daly

Sunday’s game against Tennessee State was supposed to give Northwestern a chance to work out the kinks and regain confidence after a decisive home loss to Butler. Instead, the Tigers gave the Wildcats an early-season gut check.

Junior guard Michael Thompson’s career-high 31 points were barely enough to lift NU to a 69-62 victory at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Cats trailed by eight with just more than five minutes to play, but Thompson’s gritty performance and freshman guard Alex Marcotullio’s clutch long-range shooting helped stave off the Tigers’ upset bid.

“Mike was very good the whole game,” coach Bill Carmody said. “Even before Jeff (Ryan) and Kevin (Coble) were injured, we said, ‘You’ve got to take 12-13 shots a game.’ He knew coming into this year that he was going to be expected to score a little bit more, and he’s a very good shooter. Tonight he was finding the open spot, and he knocked some big ones down there.”

Thompson made 9-of-18 shots, including five 3-pointers, and also sank eight free throws. His 18 attempts from the field were his most since he arrived in Evanston – last year, he took at least 10 shots in only five games.

Of Thompson’s 31 points, 21 came after halftime. He also scored 13 of NU’s 16 points in the final five minutes.

“In the second half, I just saw a lot of driving lanes and a lot of opportunities to get a couple of clean 3s off,” Thompson said.

The game started out like most expected it would, with NU grabbing a 28-15 lead in the first 13 minutes. But the Tigers crept back, going on an 18-4 surge to take a one-point edge into intermission. They scored the last 12 points of the half, and the Cats turned the ball over six times after their final basket with 5:04 left before the break.

Tennessee State’s full-court press created problems for NU (2-1) in the latter part of the opening period. The Tigers (0-3) forced 12 turnovers during the half, which they converted into 16 points.

“Their press defense got to us a lot,” Thompson said. “They’re long and they’re active, and they got their hands on a lot of balls.”

A thunderous dunk by junior forward Darius Cox put Tennessee State ahead 33-32 after 20 minutes, allowing the visitors to start thinking they had a chance to come away with a victory.

“We let them hang around in the last seven minutes of that first half,” Carmody said. “You do that with anybody, they feel better about themselves. We weren’t able to go into the locker room up 14 or 16, which we should have.”

Though the Cats bounced back to regain the lead after four minutes on a Marcotullio 3-pointer, the Tigers would not go away. They knocked down shots from beyond the arc on four of five possessions, eventually building a 61-53 advantage after junior forward Josh Sain made two free throws with 5:26 remaining. In the previous 21-and-a-half minutes, Tennessee State had outscored the hosts by 23 points.

But the Tigers did not make another field goal for the rest of the contest. NU started pressuring all over the court, and it had the same effect as when Tennessee State tried it in the first half. Five Tigers turnovers in the last four minutes gave the Cats enough extra possessions to complete the comeback.

Sain, who led his team with 14 points, didn’t help matters when he missed two free throws after being fouled on a shot from the perimeter. Thompson tied it up from the line 13 seconds later, and then Marcotullio drilled a 3-pointer from a few feet beyond the arc that gave NU the lead for good.

“We executed really well on that play,” said Marcotullio, who made all three of his shots from 3-point range and finished with nine points. “When the ball was swung to the top of the key, I knew I was shooting it.”

Fellow freshman Drew Crawford also provided a boost. He recorded eight points and a game-high eight rebounds, including four on the offensive glass, and stayed out of foul trouble.

Considering NU’s first opponent, Northern Illinois, topped Tennessee State by 28, the win was far from impressive. But after being on the wrong end of so many dramatic rallies last season, the Cats took away a little confidence by finally coming from behind.[email protected]