The doubt from blowout losses and not capitalizing in key moments in defeats to Michigan -- 66-64 in overtime -- and Illinois were starting to haunt the Wildcats. But Northwestern silenced critics and doubters with an 81-74 triumph over No. 6 Michigan State on Jan. 14.
"I'm just really happy for our guys and proud of them because we've had two agonizing losses," said Northwestern coach Bill Carmody. "One point here against Illinois and the overtime game against Michigan. It was two possessions from being 3-1, and you're 1-3 so that makes it rough. Our guys, we've had a couple good practices and you never know, but we told them at halftime, you've gotta take it. You can't just be competing, you've gotta take the game. You've gotta be the aggressor. You gotta go after it a little harder, and I really thought they did that. The contributions all around were great."
The Wildcats utilized a strong second half to end Michigan State's 15-game winning streak. The Wildcats donned black uniforms against the Spartans, notching their best victory since defeating sixth-ranked Purdue two years ago. The most surprising aspect of Northwestern's victory was the fact that several players were nursing injuries, and the big-game performance from Davide Curletti.
The Wildcats enter a dangerous time without a healthy squad, with upcoming games at Wisconsin and Minnesota. But the Wildcats showed that they were capable of knocking off the Spartans with key reserve Jershon Cobb out of the lineup with a hip injury. Drew Crawford, the second-leading scorer on the team, was suffering from the stomach flu and guard Alex Marcotullio missed the second half after suffering an apparent concussion.
But the Wildcats got some unexpected solid play from Curletti. The 6-foot-9, 230-pounder entered the MSU contest averaging 2.9 points and 1.7 rebounds in 11.9 minutes over 91 career games. Curletti had started just one game until earning the promotion against the Spartans. He didn't disappoint, finishing with 17 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot.
Curletti's hard work ethic and unselfishness are essential for the Wildcats.
"It's kind of like you work hard and some games you'll get only one offensive rebound and you'll get maybe two points, but other games, if you stick with it, you'll have a night like this," Curletti said. "For me, coming off the bench, you always have to have energy. That's what I try to do. That's kind of what my role was the last couple years, so that's what I'm just going to keep on doing. I like working hard, and I consider myself a hard worker. I feel my best way of contributing on this team is do that. You always need a guy like that on a team."
--Senior forward Davide Curletti had one of his best games of his career at a time the Wildcats needed a player to step up. In his second career start, Curletti tallied 17 points, six rebounds, four assists, two steals and a blocked shot in Northwestern's win over No. 6 Michigan State on Jan. 14. Curletti scored more points against the Spartans than he did in his last four games combined (14)
--Junior guard Reggie Hearn earned the praise of coach Bill Carmody following a 10-point game against Michigan State. Hearn has taken on a bigger role due to injuries to Drew Crawford, JerShon Cobb and Alex Marcotullio. Hearn tallied 10 points and five rebounds in NU's win over Michigan State. He has averaged 8.3 points in his last three games, while averaging 6.6 rebounds during that stretch. Hearn is one of three players to score in all 17 games this year.
BY THE NUMBERS: 3 -- Three Wildcats have started all 17 games this year to help bring some stability despite a rash of injuries at the guard position. John Shurna, Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn have started 17 games, while Drew Crawford has 16 starts and Luka Mirkovic owns 15 starts.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "To be honest, it didn't really matter to me. It has been a while (since I started.) I'm also a senior now. I have to put the team ahead. I can't be nervous. I have to play my game." -- Northwestern senior forward Davide Curletti on earning the second start of his career and responding with 17 points against Michigan State.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--at Wisconsin, Jan. 18.
KEY MATCHUPS: The Wildcats don't want to give Wisconsin open looks from beyond the perimeter. The Badgers have several capable shooters and will rely on a strong defense to stop John Shurna and Drew Crawford from having big games.
--at Minnesota, Jan. 22
KEY MATCHUPS: This game might hold a lot of weight for both teams looking to sneak into the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats lost Trevor Mbakwe for the season, but Rodney Williams and Ralph Sampson III are capable of dominating Northwestern in the paint. The Wildcats can spread the floor with their shooting, but hitting the boards is priority against the Gophers.
FUTURES MARKET: Sophomore guard JerShon Cobb sat out his sixth game of the season against Michigan State. The 6-foot-5 Cobb is a valuable player due to his athleticism and size, but he's not been able to display his talents due to his injuries. Cobb has played more than 20 minutes in four games this season. Cobb missed the MSU game due to a hip injury. Cobb showed what he can do when healthy, scoring 18 points against Illinois last year as a freshman.
--Senior forward John Shurna played an efficient game in leading the Wildcats to an upset victory over Michigan State. Shurna tallied a team-high 22 points on 5-of-14 shooting and made 10-of-11 free throws in 40 minutes. Shurna has played every minute in the last three games, including all 45 minutes against Michigan in an overtime loss. Shurna has sat out a total of seven minutes in his last seven games.
--Junior guard Drew Crawford had to take IV fluids before the Michigan State game due to a stomach flu. Crawford displayed his toughness by gutting out 29 minutes and scoring 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting. Crawford has scored 20 or more points in three of his last four games after netting just eight points against Illinois. Crawford his three treys against Michigan State, the first time since making a trio of threes against Creighton.