Take solace in the scare.
Cody Zeller scored 21 points to lead No. 2 Indiana past Northwestern 67-59 at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Sunday.
The biggest story, though, was that the undermanned Wildcats gave a top team all it could handle. For NU fans, there was a lot to cheer for.
“We’re starting to get some kind of identity,” coach Bill Carmody said.
And they figured it out on the fly. After falling behind by as many as 17 in the first half, NU rediscovered its offensive game.
It started with Jared Swopshire. The senior brought the Cats within 11 after a steal and dunk midway through the second half. It sparked the home crowd and forced Indiana coach Tom Crean to call a timeout.
“There were times Northwestern took advantage of our mistakes,” Crean said. "That’s what Northwestern does.”
Shortly after, NU scored eight consecutive points, with a Reggie Hearn free throw cutting the Indiana lead to 47-42. Hearn delivered another strong performance, scoring 22 points, including 13 in the second half.
“He’s been playing well all year,” Carmody said. “He’s a senior and that’s what we expect of him.”
Out of nowhere, the drama continued.
After Will Sheehey nailed a midrange jumper, Indiana seized a 56-45 lead with less than four minutes to play. On the ensuing possession, with the shot clock winding down, Hearn drew a foul from behind the arc. He made all three free throws.
Then, Swopshire knocked down a corner three, and the lead was back to five. With the offense finally starting to excel, the comeback effort was in full swing.
“We’re starting to execute our offense better than we were in the first part of the year,” Hearn said. “Guys are starting to be aggressive off the dribble.”
Not only that, a timely switch to the 1-3-1 zone gave Indiana fits. With Alex Marcotullio at the top, strong half-court traps and aggressive defense helped spur the comeback.
“It was causing them trouble,” Dave Sobolewski said. “They weren’t getting the shots they wanted. They were turning the ball over. You could tell they were sped up."
It was reminiscent of the Nov. 27, 2011 game against LSU. Though LSU was a weaker team, they scored at will. Carmody slowed their momentum late in the game by using the zone – and tonight that same strategy worked to perfection.
Only this time, the opposing fans left celebrating. Jordan Hulls hit a floater, Sobolewski missed on the other end, and Indiana hung on. Crean gushed about his respect for NU. He was simply happy to have left with the victory.
“They were coming off a great win and they shoot the ball extremely well,” Crean said. “They’ve become very comfortable with another after they lost Drew Crawford.”
Crean added that after major injuries, it takes teams a certain period of time to adjust. NU is getting there.
The play from centers, though, is becoming a concern. Alex Olah and Mike Turner boast major upside, but were overwhelmed by the physical play from Zeller. Most shocking: they combined for only one rebound in 35 minutes of action.
“That’s scary,” Carmody said.
But other than that, Sunday was your standard moral victory.
When second-ranked Michigan arrived in Evanston on Jan. 3, the Wildcats lost by 28. This time No. 2 came knocking, NU showed just how much it has improved.
“We’re making some steps,” Carmody said. “They may be incremental in some ways, but I think we’re getting better.”
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