Close Isn't Enough For Northwestern

Tuesday's game against No. 11 Michigan was touted as the most important game in Northwestern basketball history. After a heartbreaking overtime loss, it could be considered a dagger to the Wildcats' NCAA tournament hopes.

Daggers.

Northwestern's loss to Michigan Tuesday night was full of them. Daggers from the Wolverines' guards beyond the arc. Daggers to the Wildcats' NCAA Tournament chances. Daggers to the hopes of everyone surrounding the NU basketball program, longing for that the script of the last few years would change.

But after two halves and an overtime at Welsh-Ryan, each filled with costly missed opportunities, the script remained the same.

That script — another close loss, another what-if — resulted in another game that could cause the Cats to miss out on the NCAA Tournament once again.

NU certainly has the potential to make the tournament. The Cats took the No. 11 team in the country to overtime, just as they did in Ann Arbor. Michigan coach John Beilein agreed, saying that if NU had made one more shot in either game, "they're in the tournament."

But wins — not potential — are what ultimately get teams on the bubble over the hump. After another close loss, the 'Cats are still sitting on the bubble.

NU clearly doesn't lack the talent to play in March, but Tuesday night, it lacked a player who could take over the game. Both teams knew the stakes — Michigan playing for a conference title, NU for the Big Dance — and the Wolverines' veterans were the ones who stepped up.

That's not a dig at the Cats' veterans, namely John Shurna, who will deservedly go down as one of the best players in Northwestern history; a player who means more to his team than any other player in the conference. But he didn't hit shots in the clutch Tuesday night, and NU needed those shots to win.

However, the notion that this program is destined mediocrity is ridiculous. Nearing the end of regulation, I turned to the reporter next to me and said, "It would be so Northwestern of them to blow this game," before realizing how wrong of a statement that was.

This team isn't bound to history; it's just another team on the NCAA Tournament bubble — one that suffered a very damaging loss Tuesday night, just coincidentally like so many teams before it.

Were the Cats jittery Tuesday night? Did they feel the weight of history on their shoulders?

"No," said senior center Davide Curletti. "Absolutely not."

However, while Curletti's team isn't bound to history, it's coming awfully close to repeating history yet again; awfully close to following the same script of years past.

There's still time for that to change. There are still three games left before the Big Ten Tournament for the Cats to make a run. There's still time to show up in the clutch. But now the pressure is even greater than before.

"At least for me, and I think I can speak for most of guys in locker room, (we felt) more excitement than anxiety," junior guard Reggie Hearn said. "The feeling in the locker room, we were loud and ready to go. We came out with good effort, good intensity and a great desire to win."

Now, with three "must-win" games coming up, including one against heavyweight Ohio State, it's time to get anxious and it's time to win.

NU can still reach the Big Dance. And although the road just got tougher, this team still has the chance to make history rather than continue to repeat it.

However, for that to happen, NU needs to find someone to step up at the end of games, some way to pull through in the clutch. From here on out, close can't cut it.

Otherwise, it'll be another dagger through the season and another March sitting at home.


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