Men’s Basketball: Wildcats live up to ‘cardiac’ moniker in Penn State win

Dan Ryan

If anyone ever wondered how Northwestern earned the nickname “Cardiac Cats,” Saturday’s contest against Penn State served as a perfect explanation.

Needing a win to stay alive in their quest for their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, the Wildcats beat the Nittany Lions, 67-66, on 2 free throws from senior forward John Shurna with 2.6 seconds remaining.

After his team went 4-of-8 from the line in the first half, coach Bill Carmody said the end of the game was fitting.

“I really tore into our guys at halftime, specifically about foul shooting,” Carmody said. “So it was great to see John make that at the end.”

It was obvious from the outset in Happy Valley that Penn State was not going to simply roll over against NU. The Nittany Lions opened the game with a 13-6 run, dominating the boards and forcing the Cats into costly turnovers.

“They came out and stuck it to us right from the start,” junior guard Reggie Hearn said. “But we were able to bounce back. We started hitting the boards because they were killing us at first.”

Despite never controlling the glass on either end of the court, the Cats went on a run midway through the first half on the backs of hot shooting by junior forward Drew Crawford and aggressive drives by freshman guard Dave Sobolewski. After falling into the early hole, NU pulled ahead 28-22 with 6 minutes remaining in the opening stanza, a margin it would maintain for the rest of the half.

Penn State, however, refused to go away so easily.

The Nittany Lions pulled within 2 only a minute and a half into the second half, led by the stellar play of guard Tim Frazier.

The junior had his way with NU’s defense, driving to the rim at will and dishing the ball to his teammates on his way to 23 points and 8 assists.

The performance did not go unnoticed by Carmody.

“It’s just a really rough game,” Carmody said “We played pretty well in the first half. We should have had a 12-point lead or something, and we shot the heck out of the ball. But they kept coming back. Then the second half it was like Frazier against Shurna in a one-on-one contest, making big plays.”

As Shurna and Frazier matched each other shot for shot down the stretch, the Nittany Lions slowly closed in on the Cats’ lead. 5 ties and 3 lead changes later, Penn State was up by 1 with 2 minutes and 48 seconds left in regulation. But NU’s defense held down the stretch, and two missed free throws by Penn State forward Jon Graham gave the Cats the ball with 14 seconds remaining.

After Sobolewski drove down the court and passed the ball inside to Shurna, the senior forward drove to the basket and was fouled by Graham with only 2.6 seconds left in the contest. The call put Shurna on the line to win the game.

“At the timeout, John just said ‘Get me the blank ball,'” Carmody said. “And I told him, ‘I don’t know if we’ll have enough time,’ because there were about 12 seconds left. Sobo got the ball, came down. I didn’t want to call a timeout; I did that earlier in the year and it backfired on us. They got John available and they made it happen.”

Shurna drained both shots, putting the Cats ahead by one. Despite getting an open look at the end of the game, Frazier missed the final shot of the contest, and NU held on to win.

“I was just trying to stay calm,” Shurna said of his clutch free throws. “I practice a lot of free throws with guys on the team. So I tried to keep it as normal as possible and stay with my routine.”

Hearn said Shurna’s essential shots are further evidence of his standing as one of the best players in the country.

“It was a star performance by a star player,” Hearn said. “With 2.6 seconds left, the huge clutch shots that he hit. It’s a guy who’s hungry to win and hungry to get the program to its first-ever NCAA Tournament.”

NU now hosts Ohio State on Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena as the team looks for another resume-building win in the final two games of its regular season. Despite Saturday’s game not fitting that profile, Carmody said the victory was as important as they come.

“You got to win this one,” Carmody said. “I’ve said before ‘It’s not a must. It’s not a must.’ But tonight was a must, and we got it done. Ohio State has lost some games too. As (Wisconsin coach) Bo Ryan said the other day, ‘We’ll go to the gym and we’ll compete.'”

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