Basketball: Rejuvenated Cats to face Penn State

Robbie Levin

What a difference a week can make.

Last Thursday Northwestern went into its matchup with Iowa bruised and battered after two demoralizing losses at Michigan and Penn State. The Wildcats had fallen out of NCAA Tournament contention, and at just four games over .500 some, were saying an NIT bid was in jeopardy.

Thursday NU (16-10, 6-9 Big Ten) takes the court against Penn State (14-12, 7-8) looking like a rejuvenated team. The Cats are coming off two victories, including their second conference road win of the season, a 70-64 triumph at Assembly Hall.

“We’ve got three more games left,” senior guard Michael Thompson said after NU’s win over Indiana. “And (beating Iowa and Indiana) just gives us momentum going into March.”

The Wildcats shot a combined 15-for-49 in the first halves against the Wolverines and the Nittany Lions, managing just 29 points. In those two opening stanzas, NU connected on only two of its 18 attempts from beyond the arc.

Thompson, who has bailed out his team on multiple occasions with sharp shooting from three-point land, missed all seven of his three-point attempts against Penn State. After the game coach Bill Carmody told his captain to stay focused, reminding him the majority of the team has another shot to crack the Cats’ NCAA curse, but this is Thompson’s last year to don the purple and white.

“That’s good to hear from your head coach,” Thompson said. “That gave me a little bit more motivation.”

In the two games since NU’s unhappy trip to Happy Valley, Thompson has led the team in scoring, racking up a combined 38 points. On Saturday Thompson gave Assembly Hall a proper farewell, pouring in 12 points in a two-minute span midway through the first half en route to a total of 22. Half of Thompson’s scoring came from the charity stripe, where he was a perfect 11-for-11.

“Our team has just been doing a good job of spreading the ball around,” Thompson said. “I’ve just been on the receiving end of some good passes.”

In his second-to-last regular season game at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Thompson has the chance to do something no NU player has done since 2007: beat Penn State. The last time the Cats topped the Nittany Lions, Thompson was a senior at Lincoln Park High School. Since then, NU has defeated every other Big Ten opponent at least once. Carmody pointed to Penn State’s post presence as the difference the past for years.

“The thing that stands out is the rebounding,” Carmody said. “They’ve really killed us on the boards. They hit the offensive boards and got second and third shots.”

The Cats rank last in the Big Ten with a -3.1 rebounding margin, and it showed against Indiana. Late in the second half, the Hoosiers held a 12-1 rebounds edge over the Cats. Saturday NU managed to hold off Indiana because the Cats nailed 11 of their 24 attempts from long range.

“It’s not a secret,” junior center Luka Mikrovic said. “Thursday there needs to be an inside presence.”

Not only is NU jockeying for postseason positioning, but thanks to fortuitous scheduling, the Cats have a shot to jump several spots in the Big Ten. As it stands, NU is in ninth place behind Minnesota and Penn State. And one week after the Nittany Lions roll into Evanston, the Cats close out their regular season campaign against the Golden Gophers.

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