During the recent string of success, everyone admitted the obvious: Drew Crawford played like it.
When they called his name, needing a win against lowly Nebraska, he came up just short. Front rim.
Crawford shot 4-of-13 and committed five turnovers as the Wildcats lost 53-49 at Welsh-Ryan Arena. It was one they couldn't afford.
Down three, with less than one minute remaining, out of a timeout, Crawford stalled from the right wing. Without moving, he let the shot clock tick down and forced an ill-advised three pointer. It was short, and Nebraska connected on the other end to kill the late comeback bid.
NU prided itself on NIT hopes, which would mark a positive step in Chris Collins' first year. The ‘Cats had beaten teams including Wisconsin and Indiana, building confidence with their hard-nosed defense.
But in college basketball, those can be fleeting. A surprise loss strands them at 5-6 heading into a game at Michigan State. The setback seemed avoidable for a while. This one exposed their flaws even more.
The first half went as planned. Nebraska shot 25 percent from the field, with NU riding a sharp Alex Olah to a six-point halftime lead. Jershon Cobb was also confident throughout, and would finish with 14 points, four assists and no turnovers.
Out of the locker room, it seemed as though the luck had expired. Led by the shooting of Walter Pitchford, the Huskers went on a 14-5 run. Pitchford scored 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting, being the surprise catalyst for NU's struggles.
Trailing 42-36 with just more than six minutes remaining, Cobb weaved into the lane for a reverse layup attempt, but the officiating crew missed an obvious goaltend call. Nebraska scored on the other lead, stretching its lead to eight.
Still, the Wildcats—as they so often have—managed to fight back. Consecutive triples from Crawford, which still did not overshadow his poor night, made it a two-point game. Then, Demps pulled up to tie the score.
But Pitchford haunted the Wildcats. He made two free throws after an over-the-back foul call and then hit his third triple of the game.
After Cobb made his own free throws and NU finally got its stop, the Wildcats had a chance to tie the game. Instead, Crawford tossed up his poor three-pointer and Terran Petteway responded with his own on the other end to make it 52-46.
A Sanjay Lumpkin three put NU back in it, but Petteway closed the game by nailing one of two free throws.
As Nebraska celebrated, NU was left to consider its struggles. When you win, they stay out of the discussion. This afternoon, they were in full force.
The team somehow barely uses Alex Olah as an offensive weapon, despite the fact that he had a size advantage against Nebraska's frontcourt. It also lacks the depth to compete, with former starting point guard Dave Sobolewski and freshman Nate Taphorn benched for the entire game.
They also recruited shooters who can't shoot. Despite an obvious focus on guys who can connect from the perimeter, the Wildcats are dead last in the Big Ten in three-point shooting. They made a decent 8-of-22 today, but still missed open corner looks that would have changed the outcome.
Finally, the Wildcats' defensive intensity could not balance their lack of efficiency. They committed 13 turnovers, looking sloppy after a weeklong layoff. They missed open passes they would normally make. It often boils down to execution, and NU was lacking.
As we've seen in the past, with Illinois and with Nebraska, one game can change an entire situation. Northwestern travels to East Lansing for a rematch with Michigan State, who they competed with for three-quarters of their most recent game.
Saturday's loss will sting. They need better from their best if they want a postseason berth.
With recent strong play, Northwestern set new expectations. As was bound to happen, they finally came up short.