Hats off to the Wildcats

Northwestern wasn't supposed to make its contest with Ohio State close. But against all odds, the overmatched and undermanned Wildcats gave a valiant fight.

One day before Northwestern's meeting with No. 13 Ohio State, the assembled media in Evanston surrounded James Montgomery III.

The junior guard was once a practice player for the NU women's basketball team. On Tuesday, he was placed in front of reporters and asked how he would help the Wildcats battle with the Buckeyes.

Montgomery isn't supposed to be the answer man for Northwestern. While he's a fine player, the role of walk-on rarely requires such importance. In a perfect world, it's Jershon Cobb, Drew Crawford, or Jared Swopshire facing the cameras. But they're all out for the season. This is the situation Northwestern is in.

The wounded Wildcats walked into Columbus completely overmatched. Just seven scholarship players were in uniform, while six watched from home.

Nobody gave Northwestern a chance—and justifiably so. The 69-59 final score doesn't do the Wildcats justice. It was a valiant effort.

Coach Bill Carmody would be the first to admit his Wildcats' chances were slim. A quick glance down the bench was all the proof he needed. His team, once filled with depth, was missing its rotation, its substitutions, and key matchups. But he still had it ready to play.

After the opening tipoff, a new wrinkle was unveiled by Carmody: the 2-3 zone. It's a look that Northwestern has yet to show all season long. The pressure flustered Ohio State's potent offense. With comfort in their attack, the Wildcats were able to play freely within the Princeton offense. They were working the backdoor cuts for open layups and launching three-pointers.

Northwestern didn't have its stars, but managed without them. Usual starters Dave Sobolewski and Reggie Hearn added 12 and 10 points, respectively. But it was the efforts of would-be bench players Tre Demps and Kale Abrahamson which sparked the Wildcats. Both freshmen (Demps a freshman by eligibility) have been wildly inconsistent, making a name for their exciting bursts.

Each time it appeared the talented Buckeyes were set to pull away, Demps or Abrahamson provided the answer. Demps drilled a 35-footer as the halftime buzzer sounded, tying the score at 30. After the break, Abrahamson tallied two 3-pointers, then Demps added one of his own. It was a statement the Wildcats weren't going to back down.

Six minutes into the second half, Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft tied the game with a long three-pointer. The Value City Arena crowd felt the momentum swing. As the Wildcats appeared rattled and the shot clock was near expiring, Kale Abrahamson connected on an off-balanced three-pointer. The building filled with silence, once again.

With three minutes to go, and Ohio State owning a three-point lead and momentum, we were all ready to write off Northwestern again. But the Wildcats didn't waver. Demps, never lacking in confidence, chucked up a three-pointer with a hand in his face and connected. The score was even again—oh, how unlikely it was.

The game's final minutes ended as all pundits projected; Ohio State threw down several outstanding dunks as the depleted Wildcats could only watch. The Buckeyes were the better team as we all knew, and they proved it on Thursday night. But, from a Northwestern perspective, that wasn't the story.

Overmatched and undermanned, nobody gave Northwestern a chance to beat Ohio State, but it nearly pulled it off. Hats off to the heart it showed.

Chris Emma has covered recruiting, college athletics and professional baseball for FOX Sports Next since 2009. Emma covered the Nebraska Cornhuskers for Big Red Report, and currently covers the Northwestern Wildcats. He resides on Chicago's north side.
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