Just like that, the 'Cats are back on the bubble.
After getting out-hustled down the stretch last time out in the loss to Wisconsin, Northwestern turned the tables tonight and pulled away from Purdue in the final minutes, thanks to two huge plays by Drew Crawford and lights out free throw shooting. As the final seconds ticked away, the students stormed the court and the 'Cats celebrated their first home win over a top 10 team since beating Michigan in 1994, and their first home win over a team as high as #6 since beating Magic Johnson and Michigan State in 1979.
In the early going it looked like Purdue might run Northwestern out of the gym, as the Boilers came out fired up and forced turnovers on the first 4 possessions to take an early lead. But NU hung in and took a 1 point lead to the locker room. JaJuan Johnson got in foul trouble and spent most of the first half on the bench, which was a huge break for the 'Cats. For the game Johnson was limited to only 18 minutes before fouling out.
In his absence, Northwestern took advantage by continually driving strong to the basket. That was the game plan for much of the night, as Northwestern attempted a season low 11 threes, instead attacking off the dribble and getting to the line 30 times. Purdue on the other hand was not nearly as aggressive offensively, attempting 22 threes (making only 5) and getting to the line just 19 times. I have to give Bill Carmody a ton of credit for his defensive gameplan, which featured almost all matchup zone and very little 1-3-1. The zone did a great job of collapsing on Purdue drives, instead forcing the Boilers to beat them with jump shots. NU forced just 6 turnovers, but made up for it by dominating Purdue on the glass, finishing the game with a 42-23 rebounding advantage. No, that is not a typo, Northwestern out-rebounded Purdue by 19. I haven't done any research on it, but that has to be the biggest rebounding advantage Northwestern has had in a Big Ten game during the Carmody era. Just a fantastic job on the glass, led by Luka Mirkovic who had 10 rebounds to go along with 16 points. Even Kyle Rowley chipped in nicely off the bench with 4 points, 3 rebounds, and nice defense on JaJuan Johnson when the Purdue big man was in the game.
In the second half it was a tight game much of the way, before Crawford took over down the stretch. He came around a screen at the top of the key and buried a three to give Northwestern a four point lead with 2 minutes left, then attacked off the dribble on the next possession and completed a 3-point play to all but put the Boilers away. The final minute was a bit tense at times, thanks to a couple of turnovers, but the 'Cats hit their free throws to win by 8. Northwestern was an impressive 26 for 30 from the line in the game. It was great to finally see NU attack in the final minutes with a lead instead of the passive play not to lose strategy we've often seen in the past.
Michael Thompson led the way with 20 points, and played fantastic basketball throughout. Early in the first half when it looked like Purdue was going to break it open, he stepped up with two big threes, and over the course of the game he ran the point very well, being aggressive when the driving lanes were there and slowing the pace down when they weren't. He had a couple amazing 3-point plays on drives to the basket where he somehow got the shot off over much taller Purdue defenders. Mirkovic once again stayed within himself, not forcing up any shots and passing well out of the high post. Crawford did a nice job attacking the basket, getting to the line a game high 10 times. The only downside on offense was John Shurna, who was shut down by Purdue's Robbie Hummel. I was extremely impressed by the play of Hummel, who doesn't get enough credit for how good a defender he is.
E'Twaun Moore led all scorers with 24, and Hummel added 20, but the Boilers couldn't recover from Johnson's foul trouble, as their bench added next to nothing with just 5 points. Purdue fought hard the entire way, as Chris Kramer stayed in the game after an apparent ankle sprain, and Hummel had to get a cut above his eye stitched up after an inadvertent Shurna elbow. The Boilers' undoing was lack of support for Hummel and Moore, as none of their role players could hit shots or really contribute anything.
But enough about Purdue, let's talk some more instead about how impressive a win this was for Northwestern. Their undoing against Wisconsin was the inability to rebound on defense, and not attacking the basket enough on offense. Tonight, the 'Cats did an outstanding job on both fronts. I already mentioned the rebounding, but it bears repeating: Northwestern out-rebounded Purdue 42 to 23 for the game. Just amazing. It says a ton about the heart of this team, and the way they attacked the basket off the dribble says a lot about their athleticism. Past NU teams would have not been able to handle the kind of defensive pressure Purdue brought, but this team was aggressive and confident and took it right to their opponent. While Northwestern did turn the ball over 17 times, that's understandable because of how aggressive Purdue was defensively, and because an offense based on dribble drives will lead to more turnovers than an offense based on perimeter jump shots that Northwestern usually runs.
A gigantic win for the 'Cats, as they finally got a marquee win, one that will look really good come Selection Sunday. I wrote two days ago that I was nearly off the NCAA bandwagon, but I have to say I underestimated the heart of this team, and I now have at least one foot back on. Of course the schedule doesn't get any easier, as they visit Ohio State on Tuesday to play in an arena they have never won in (I think). But for tonight, let's just enjoy this win. My one small complaint was that I didn't hear a "Just Like Football!" chant from the students, step it up please.