Men’s Basketball: Still on the bubble, Northwestern defeats Iowa, 70-66

Chris Johnson

Northwestern faced a do-or-die situation at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, with a win needed against Iowa in order to keep its hopes at an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament alive. The Wildcats responded valiantly, downing the Hawkeyes, 70-66, and moved one step closer towards shedding the program’s ignominious postseason reputation.

“It was a game that was real important to us and important to Iowa also,” coach Bill Carmody said. “They battled the whole game, and we did too.”

Bolstered by a 27-5 first-half run, the Cats carried momentum into the second half, pushing their lead to 10 with 10 minutes remaining. But the Hawkeyes fought back, with senior guard Matt Gatens hitting a 3-point try with two minutes remaining to cut NU’s lead to 2.

After a missed free throw by senior forward John Shurna, Iowa’s Josh Oglesby’s game-winning three hit the rim and bounced out to preserve the NU win.

“That was a scary feeling, it looked good from my angle,” Crawford said. “But I’m very happy that he missed it.”

Junior guard Alex Marcotullio then sealed the victory for the Cats, knocking down a pair of clutch free throws with two seconds remaining.

“Alex is tough,” Crawford said. “He’s an experienced player and he’s got a lot of heart. He’s always constantly coming out and playing well for us, especially in the last couple of games.”

Iowa had proven itself a tough opponent for visiting teams in recent weeks, with wins over then-No. 18 Indiana and then-No. 16 Wisconsin. NU appeared as if it would suffer the same fate early on, as the Hawkeyes used a 17-2 run to jump out to a 20-7 lead with 12 minutes remaining in the opening period. The Cats had made just two of their first 15 shots at that point.

NU’s fortunes would change soon after, thanks to a series of untimely turnovers by the Hawkeyes as Carmody’s switched the Cats to a 1-3-1 zone defense. NU used its success on the defensive end to key an impressive run of their own, a 27-5 spurt to give the Cats a 42-35 lead at the half.

“We were able to pressure them in the 1-3-1 zone and that got our offense going,” junior forward Drew Crawford said. “We were able to stay composed and turn that momentum in our favor.”

Crawford turned in one of his best performances of the season Saturday, recording 7 rebounds, 5 steals and a team-high 18 points.

JerShon Cobb added 13 points, a season high for the sophomore guard. Cobb said he is feeling better after struggling with injuries for much of the season.

“I’m finally getting in better shape, becoming more comfortable on the court,” he said. “I’m just trying to do whatever I have to do to help my team.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of NU’s victory was that the Cats won despite the lack of production from Shurna, the Big Ten’s leading scorer at 20.1 ppg. Shurna finished with just 9 points Saturday, marking the first time he hasn’t reached double digits since a Dec. 2 matchup with Mississippi Valley State.

Credit Gatens, who put the clamps Shurna while scoring a team-high 17 points. Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said that it was a fitting performance for Gatens on Iowa’s senior day.

“It was epic,” he said. “The effort level to do what he did against a guy who is 6-foot, 9-inches, it was one of the most incredible things that I’ve ever seen. And at the same time to go and get 17 (points), you can’t ask for anything more from him on a very special day.”

While a road win at Iowa does not guarantee the Cats an invitation to the Big Dance, a loss would have put NU’s tournament hopes on life support.

“This was an important game for us,” Carmody said. “We’ve had a good schedule – the conference record is very good. But you put your argument out there after the season is over. And we still have to go to the [Big Ten] tournament.”

NU will look to solidify its tournament hopes with a strong run in this year’s conference tournament. For their first test, the seventh-seeded Cats face 10th-seeded Minnesota on Thursday in the opening round. NU split the season series with the Gophers, most recently notching an impressive, 11-point win in Evanston on Feb. 18.

“Minnesota is tough, they’re a really athletic team,” Crawford said. “We really have to play tough defense and rebound. And then on offense, we need to be composed and run our stuff like we know that we’re capable of.”

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