There have been plenty of big games and big upsets in NU history, but none with as much impact on the Cats' NCAA Tournament chances and few that defied the "close, but no cigar" theme as much as this one.
Unlike some other big wins, this one was no fluke — there was no ridiculous shooting performance or streak of luck from the Cats. As Michigan State coach Tom Izzo put it after the game, Northwestern deserved to win. "That was a very good team that beat us," he said.
Perhaps that's what adds to the significance of this game — the fact that NU was legitimately the better team, better than the sixth-ranked team in the country. That kind of team is something Cats fans have rarely seen, and ironically, it's it was a team that nobody, not even Bill Carmody, knew would be on the court.
"We were going to go small with John (Shurna) at center, but we weren't too sure if Drew (Crawford, who was sick with the stomach flu) was going to play or not," Carmody said. "It was just a gametime decision to go with Davide (Curletti).
What a decision that turned out to be.
Curletti was spectacular, finishing with 17 points and six rebounds in 36 minutes of playing time. However, it was his hustle and energy that helped NU gain momentum.
"Curletti was difference in game, if you ask me," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "He hit a three and made a bunch of free throws early. He's the one that snagged those (rebounds) when we had them and he took them and scored on them."
Most importantly, Carmody finally had his best five players — Shurna, Crawford, Curletti, Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn — on the court at the same time, and in their natural positions. Curletti was the last piece of the puzzle.
For the first time all season, the NU offense ran how it is supposed to — with good ball movement, open threes and backdoor cuts — due to Curletti's ability to score from anywhere on the floor.
With the offense rolling going into halftime, the Cats didn't lie down, continuing to run their offense and pull away.
"We told everybody at halftime that you can't just be competing, you have to take the game have to show aggression," Carmody said. "You have to go harder."
That kind of confidence has been missing from this basketball program for a long time, and it was especially surprising coming from a team that had lost two straight heartbreakers.
"We've had two agonizing losses against Illinois and in overtime game against Michigan," Carmody said. "We're two possessions from being 3-1 (in the Big Ten), so that makes it rough."
But this time, the Cats pulled it out. Finally, they played a full 40 minutes. Finally, everything clicked.
"One thing that's big with us is playing together as a team," Crawford said. "When everyone is playing together perfectly and we play team defense, too, we're really tough to beat."
Perhaps Izzo put it best in his postgame remarks.
"They deserved to win game, we didn't," he said. "That was a very good team that beat us."
A very good team, indeed, and a team that just got one signature win closer to its first dance in March.