Self-inflicted damage doomed NU in an abysmal 50-44 loss on Saturday. Even as they addressed defensive concerns, the Wildcats fell victim to inexcusable mistakes.
NU rarely turns the ball over – it has become a staple of Bill Carmody teams. Today, as was the case against Illinois State last week, they failed to control the ball. The Cats committed 16 turnovers, including five from reliable senior Reggie Hearn. Dave Sobolewski said the measure for successful ball protection is straightforward.
"If you have turnovers in the teens, it's not a good night," Sobolewski said. "… I'm going to have to watch film and see what was going on."
NU compounded its mistakes with poor free throw shooting. With the Flames struggling to make shots, the Cats entered the bonus.
Instead of capitalizing on the opportunity, NU missed two front-ends, keeping UIC close. The Cats went into halftime with a 26-25 advantage, but Carmody knew it could have been greater.
"I thought we could have had a six or seven point lead," Carmody said.
That carried over to the second half. NU finished just 10-of-20 from the line. When Sobolewski misfired on another front end, the subdued but noticeable celebration began on the UIC bench.
Although Crawford gave credit to the strong effort from UIC, he said the team's repeated mistakes were costly.
"Had we not turned the ball over, had we made our free throws, it would have been a completely different game," Crawford said. "That's something that we have to do a better job of."
The Cats did fairly solid work in keeping UIC away from the offensive glass early in the game. They made some errors, but generally held their own underneath the basket.
Then those fundamentals disappeared. Josh Crittle – the outstanding UIC big man – bullied Alex Olah and Mike Turner inside. He finished with 13 points, and his most important basket came at a crucial juncture.
With the game in the balance, tied 44-44, Crittle rebounded a missed three-pointer from Daniel Barnes. He went straight up with a layup. That put the Flames ahead for good with 53 seconds remaining. Carmody said his team failed to close out defensive possessions by corralling boards.
"You have to get the ball off the backboard," he said. "It's part of defense. We just weren't doing that."
More alarming, several mistakes came from the senior core of NU, which failed to execute. Carmody hesitates to reach down his bench, putting the ownership on his starters to excel. They fell flat.
Hearn had his toughest game of the season. On top of the five turnovers, he went 4-of-9 from the line and seemed a step behind throughout. Jared Swopshire failed to get involved in the offense. He was held scoreless just one week after earning a Most Valuable Player award in South Padre. Crawford said much of the responsibility falls on experienced players.
"It's a lot of pressure on us as guys who have played a lot of minutes," Crawford said. "Sometimes, it's tough. You have to grind through it and make plays when you need to."
This team, whose starting lineup boasts experienced players, needs to refocus before a matchup at Baylor Tuesday.
Yes, the shots did not fall. But the real culprit for the loss was a series of unforced errors at inopportune moments.
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