Men’s Basketball: Shurna shines in ugly victory

Danny Daly

John Shurna wasn’t supposed to carry Northwestern on his back again. Other players were expected to step up at home against a 1-15 team with no starter listed taller than 6-foot-7.

Instead the Wildcats needed the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week more than they have all year.

The sophomore forward answered the call Thursday night, scoring 21 points and pulling down a career-best 13 rebounds in a 53-44 win over Texas-Pan American that seemed more like a loss.

“Texas-Pan American deserved to win,” coach Bill Carmody said. “We weren’t crisp all night. We were very fortunate to win this game.”

Aside from Shurna, who was 8-of-15 from the floor, the Cats shot 22.8 percent from the field and made no 3-pointers. They also had a season-high 19 turnovers, matching their season average of 11 by halftime.

NU’s size advantage helped it put the game away down the stretch. The Cats had nine blocks, won the rebounding battle 48-36 and outscored the Broncs 16-7 on second chances, which was equal to the margin of victory. Sophomore center Luka Mirkovic used his 6-foot-11 frame to record 11 points and 11 boards, with seven coming on the offensive glass.

“We were just bigger than those guys-that was the only thing,” Carmody said. “Everything else, they beat us at.”

Both teams struggled to get in a rhythm during a sloppy first half. Texas-Pan American led 7-2 after six-and-a-half minutes, but that was when Shurna took over. He scored the Cats’ next 14 points, putting them ahead by two with eight minutes left.

Shurna added another basket before halftime and impressed Carmody by displaying the instinct of a go-to scorer. It was Shurna’s fifth consecutive contest with at least 20 points.

“He saw the direction the game was going and started taking some shots, which is what he had to do,” Carmody said.

Shurna’s ability to stretch the floor with his perimeter shooting created matchup problems for the Broncs.

“He’s really good when they do their dribble-handoff action, just stopping behind the handoff and making it really hard to get out there,” Texas-Pan American coach Ryan Marks said. “It’s just his craftiness.”

But Marks’ men rallied to take a 23-21 lead into the break. Despite their height disadvantage, the Broncs had eight offensive rebounds by halftime. They also shot themselves in the foot with traveling violations inside and finished the game with four air-balled shots from beyond the arc.

Meanwhile, Carmody expressed displeasure with the way his squad handled the ball in the first half. The Cats’ slow start possibly stemmed from taking the Broncs for granted.

“You’re playing someone you think you should beat and you’re careless with the ball, loose with it,” Carmody said. “They were going by us. It’s not like they’re little guys who can make a shot here and there-they were going by us to the basket. If they had a couple of big guys, we would’ve been in real trouble.”

They were in trouble as it was. Texas-Pan American scored the first five points after intermission, and NU didn’t seize control until just before the midway point of the second half. Two free throws by Mirkovic put the Cats on top for good with 11 minutes to go, though the Broncs didn’t go down easily. NU never led by double digits.

The trip to Welsh-Ryan Arena was Texas-Pan American’s 14th game away from home this season. The Broncs had started to play better recently, but they also lost to five teams from BCS conferences by an average of 38 points. Marks called his squad’s effort its best yet.

On the other hand, NU’s uninspired performance was particularly disappointing after Saturday’s 91-70 blowout loss to Michigan State.

“After you get beat the way we got beat, you can’t look ahead,” Carmody said. “You’ve got to go out there and play, be a competitor and fight your tail off, and we didn’t do that. I don’t care who you’re playing. If you’re going to have any chance in this conference, you’ve got to go out there and play hard as hell. And we didn’t.”[email protected]