Men’s Basketball: An advantage in inches leads to a lopsided win for Northwestern

Nicholas Medline

On Northwestern’s first possession, John Shurna drove to the center of the paint and elevated above the defense for an acrobatic dunk attempt – only to be rejected by the rim.

Although the Wildcats struggled mightily to finish plays in the early going, they maintained their senior forward’s intensity throughout a 60-36 season-opening victory over Texas Pan-American at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

Stout and persistent defense anchored NU’s victory, holding the Broncs (0-2) to a 29.8 percent clip from the field. The Cats (1-0) also managed to capitalize on their height advantage.

No Texas Pan-American starter was taller than six feet, six inches, and this deficit in size translated to a flurry of interior baskets for Luka Mirkovic. The six-foot-11 senior center finished with 12 points and five rebounds in a game in which points came at a premium.

“In any situation, we’re trying to get Luka the ball,” Shurna said. “When he plays well, we play well.”

Shurna scored a game-high 15 points, and junior guard Drew Crawford added 11 points and six rebounds in his return from a left ankle injury that he sustained during practice. Junior guard Alex Marcotullio also played after missing last Monday’s exhibition against Robert Morris (Ill.).

“I did a lot of rehab with our trainer Lanny Bradford,” Crawford said. “Just this last practice, I started playing defense and did some scrimmaging. I didn’t notice (the injury) too much tonight.”

Both offenses sputtered in the opening minutes, as the Cats held a 9-8 edge nearly midway through the first half. After Shurna made the first triple of the game, Dave Sobolewski converted an old-fashioned three-point play. The freshman point guard beat Broncs guard Aaron Urbanus off the dribble and hit the layup while drawing contact. The two players received offsetting technical fouls for a skirmish under the basket following the play.

NU appeared poised to pull away, leading by 10 with just fewer than eight minutes remaining in the first half, but Texas Pan-American went on a run of its own. Forward Josh Cleveland snuck behind the Cats’ defense for a wide-open dunk, and guard Brandon Provost followed with consecutive three-pointers to bring the Broncs within two.

The momentum proved fleeting, as the Cats allowed just a single point in the final five minutes of the half to take a 31-19 lead into the locker room.

Fewer than eight minutes into the second half, junior guard Reggie Hearn helped seal the outcome with a three-pointer to give NU a 17-point advantage, its largest to that point. Hearn put forth an efficient performance, compiling seven points, five rebounds and four assists in his first regular-season start.

The Broncs failed to heat up from downtown, perhaps due to coach Bill Carmody’s man-to-man defense. Texas Pan-American connected on just three of its 23 attempts from behind the arc.

“We’ll probably stick with (man-to-man) until we lose,” Carmody said.

After shining against Robert Morris, Sobolewski went 2-of-7 from the floor Sunday while fellow freshman guard Tre Demps scored his lone point on a second-half free throw. Carmody said the statistics did not reflect the quality of their performances.

“I didn’t think they played poorly,” Carmody said. “I told them both at the end of the game, I don’t feel like coaching the last five minutes, so you guys take over now.”

Sobolewski and his teammates did succeed in taking care of the ball, as NU committed just seven turnovers. Texas Pan-American had two more turnovers than field goals in a woeful shooting effort.

The competition gets far tougher in the following weeks as NU travels to the Charleston Classic, where they will first square off against SEC foe LSU (1-0) on Thursday. Carmody reported that sophomore guard JerShon Cobb should be able to play against the Tigers after sitting out Sunday with a hip injury.

Shurna said the team looks forward to playing a variety of competition in the four-day tournament.

“We’ve been playing against each other every day, ” he said. “It’ll be nice to mix it up a little bit.”

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