Men’s Basketball: Fans storm court as NU topples No. 6 Purdue

Danny Daly

For three years, Michael Thompson longed to play in a game that ended with Northwestern fans storming the court.

After NU held off No. 6 Purdue 72-64 in front of a capacity crowd at Welsh-Ryan Arena Saturday, the junior guard got his wish.

“Since I’ve been here, I’ve been watching other colleges storm the court after they beat a ranked team or a good team,” said Thompson, who scored a team-high 20 points and shot 6-of-9 from the field. “I’ve always wanted to be a part of that. Finally, that happened tonight.”

The fans rushed the floor to celebrate the Wildcats’ first home win over a top-10 team in almost 16 years, when they beat then-No. 8 Michigan in the 1994 regular season finale. NU has hosted a dozen top-10 teams since that overtime victory, losing to each of them by an average of nearly 14 points per game.

It was an uncharacteristic performance by the Cats (13-4, 2-3 Big Ten). The Big Ten leader in assist-to-turnover ratio and 3-pointers made, NU committed 16 miscues against 13 helpers and attempted only 10 treys. The Cats rarely used their signature 1-3-1 defense, and top scorer John Shurna totaled just eight points.

“I don’t know if they got any backdoor (cuts), and they made four 3s,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “If you say that walking in, you’d say you probably beat Northwestern. … Just allowing them to shoot 10 3s is an accomplishment.”

But NU made up for it in other ways, particularly with its physicality inside. A 42-23 rebounding edge, 34-24 advantage in the paint and 26-of-30 mark at the foul line fueled the Cats to the upset win.

The sophomore center duo of Luka Mirkovic and Kyle Rowley was as effective as it has been all year. Mirkovic contributed a double-double with 16 points and 10 boards, while Rowley added four points and pulled down three rebounds in 13 minutes of action.

“Luka did a good job scoring around the basket,” coach Bill Carmody said. “I like the fact that our center is starting to produce a little bit. That helps all of us. He’s starting to get some points, and that’s key.”

Neither team could get in an offensive rhythm during a low-scoring first half. The Boilermakers scored the first five points of the game, and the Cats did not make their first field goal until more than five-and-a-half minutes had passed.

Purdue (14-3, 2-3) took a 14-10 lead shortly after the midway point, but NU responded. Behind back-to-back 3-pointers from Thompson, the Cats went on a 12-0 run to take the biggest lead by either side until the final two minutes of the game. Three quick fouls by 6-foot-10 Purdue center JaJuan Johnson forced him to the bench and allowed NU to establish an inside presence.

Thompson accounted for 10 consecutive NU points during one stretch. The scoring outburst was a far cry from Thompson’s output last year in Evanston against Purdue. In that game, the Cats blew a 14-point lead in the second half as Thompson had only six points.

“(Thompson) has ownership-it’s his team,” Painter said. “Directing guys, getting guys where they need to be, running the offense, just trying to probe the defense and get them to break down, and then picking his spots. He’s not a quintessential point guard. He’s a lead guard. He’s looking for the drive, looking to get to the free throw line, looking for his pull-up (jumper), looking for those 3s.”

And Thompson battled sickness throughout the contest to give NU stability down the stretch.

“He brought the ball up the court every single time,” Carmody said. “The guy’s throwing up at halftime, and he just kept getting it up the court.”

The Boilermakers closed the deficit to 26-25 by halftime, cutting the margin to a single point when former Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Kramer knocked the ball away from freshman guard Alex Marcotullio in the backcourt and finished with an easy layup. But the Cats made the first three baskets of the second half to create some separation.

The lead lasted until the 10-minute mark, when junior forward Robbie Hummel scored in transition after another steal by Kramer. Then junior guard E’Twaun Moore took over for the Boilermakers, pouring in their next nine points en route to a game-high 24.

But NU wasn’t about to live through a repeat of last year’s game. Freshman forward Drew Crawford made three big plays down the stretch, hitting two shots from beyond the arc and driving from the perimeter to the basket for a three-point play. His second 3-pointer was the most significant, coming off an in-bounds pass with just two seconds left on the shot clock. The Cats took a 61-57 advantage with 2:05 remaining after that shot and never let the Boilermakers get within a possession of tying it up again.

“I told this team earlier in the year: ‘This isn’t last year’s team,'” Carmody said.

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