Wildcats hold off Northwest Sports All-Stars

The big stories of the evening were guard play, free-throw shooting, and a possible serious injury to Northwestern starter Vedran Vukusic as the Wildcats held off the Northwest Sports All-Stars 80 – 78 at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston.

JitimIt was a big scoring night for guards as Jitim Young [NU Photo-right] scored 25 and TJ Parker poured in an additional 23 points for Northwestern. Former Atlanta Hawk guard Ed Gray led Northwest Sports with 29 points on 8 of 10 three-point shooting.

For the second consecutive exhibition game, Northwestern relied heavily on back-door opportunities created by its guards and motion offense. Just over a minute into the contest, Winston Blake opened scoring off a no-look, back-door pass from Vedran Vukusic to give the Wildcats a 2 – 0 lead.

After falling behind 8 - 6, TJ Parker sank a three-pointer from the top of the key to regain the lead for the Wildcats 9 – 8 at the 15:36 mark of the first half. A Jitim Young three-pointer from the corner off an inbounds play extended the Northwestern lead to 12 – 8. However, the Northwest Sports All-Stars struck right back to take a 15 – 14 lead with 11:27 to go.

Northwestern again went to the back-door pass as substitute forward Davor Duvancic hit fellow Croatian teammate Vedran Vukusic under the basket for a 16 – 15 advantage. TJ Parker extended the advantage by showcasing his speed going around two defenders all the way to the basket for a lay-in to make it 20 – 15. Yet, as they did all night, the Northwest Sports All-Stars responded with a three-point basket to again cut the lead to two midway through the first half.

Jimmy MaleyAfter trading baskets, Northwestern rushed the ball up court and found a streaking Jimmy Maley [NU Photo-Left] for a quick two. Moments later, freshman TJ Parker showed his range on a long three-point field goal to extend the lead to 27 – 20, the Wildcats' largest lead of the game.

Then, Ed Gray took over for the Northwest Sports All-Stars. He responded by knocking down a three-point field goal to cut the lead to 27 – 23. On the following possession, Gray stole an errant Jimmy Maley pass and took it downcourt to cut the Northwestern lead to 27 – 25. After a Jitim Young three for the Wildcats, Gray stroked another three to keep the Northwestern lead at two, 30 – 28.

With substitutes Mohamed Hachad, Jimmy Maley, and Davor Duvancic in the game, the Wildcat offense began to sputter as Northwest Sports took a 35 – 30 lead with just over a minute to go in the half. TJ Parker cut the lead to three when he pulled up hard off the drive for a jumper with 0:30 to play in the half.

Northwest Sports called a time out with 0:11.5 left to set up a play to potentially increase their lead to five or six by the half. The plan backfired. After a Northwest Sports miss with seconds on the clock, Jason Burke grabbed the rebound for the ‘Cats and outletted to TJ Parker at halfcourt. Parker launched a shot from just beyond half court in front of the scorer's table and banked it in at the buzzer to tie the game at 35.

Wildcats senior center Aaron Jennings, who has been plagued with shin splints, saw his first action of the season starting the second half for the Wildcats and came out strong. After a Jitim Young steal, Jennings completed the fast break with a two-handed jam to open scoring in the second half. Jennings followed with a three-pointer with 18:17 to go to make it 40 – 35.

Northwestern extended its largest lead of the game 48 – 40 on a spectacular give-and-go from Parker to Jennings back to Parker at the 16:34 mark. Minutes later, Jennings found Winston Blake alone under the basket to keep Northwestern in command 50 – 43.

Again the Northwest Sports All-Stars charged back as Ed Gray sank another three to cut the lead to 53 – 50 with 11:06 to play.

Then came the most frightening moment of the game for Northwestern fans. With 10:30 to play, Vedran Vukusic came in strong to wrangle an offensive rebound and immediately shouted, grimaced, and hunched over in pain as trainers came off the Northwestern bench to lead him directly to the locker room. Vukusic was hindered for the majority of last season with a shoulder that continually popped out of its socket. Since successful surgery in April, all signs have indicated that Vukusic had made a full recovery. Vukusic would later return to the bench with an ice pack strapped to his right shoulder but did not return to action as he sat on the bench with his head down for the closing minutes of the game.

The stoppage in play did not slow down Ed Gray, who drained another three to tie the game at 53. Winston Blake followed with his only three-point field goal of the game to regain the lead for the Wildcats. On a roll, Ed Gray sank another long three to retie the game at 56 and—on the third consecutive possession—sank yet another three to regain the lead for the Northwest Sports All-Stars 59 – 58.

With both teams in the bonus, the Wildcats and the All-Stars traded possessions and trips to the free throw line. After Northwest Sports tied the game at 62, the Wildcats retook the lead 64 – 62 on a back-door pass from Duvancic to Parker streaking for the lay-up. Young extended the lead with 4:50 to 66 – 62 going coast to coast after a Northwest Sports miss. As Northwest Sports again came back, Ed Gray collected his own miss and converted to tie the game at 66 with 3:24 to play.

Moments later, Winston Blake found Parker on the back-door to give the Wildcats a 68 – 66 lead. On the following possession, Kurk Lee responded for Northwest Sports with a three-point shot five feet beyond the arc to give the All-Stars a 69 – 68 lead at the 2:40 mark.

Northwestern recaptured the lead on two free-throws by Young, who was a perfect 7 of 7 from the line on the night. A Parker-Blake-Parker give-and-go put Northwestern ahead 72 – 69 with 2:12 to play.

Northwestern pulled ahead 74 – 70 on a Jitim Young pull-up jumper with 0:56 play, but the Northwest Sports All-Stars would not go away. Jamie Booker raced down the court and scored to again cut the lead to two with 0:44 to go.

Blake hit Young on a back-door cut the following time down the court that seemed as though it might finally put the All-Stars away when Young was fouled on the play and converted the three-point play. This put Northwestern up 77 – 72 with 0:27.4 to play.

Almost as expected, All-Star Ed Gray hit a three-point field gold to cut the Northwestern lead to two, 77 – 75.

The All-Stars then put freshman TJ Parker on the line with 0:11.8 to play. Parker calmly sank both free-throws to give the Wildcats a two score lead, 79 – 75.

Perhaps having gone to the bank too many times, Northwest Sports finally missed a three-point attempt on the ensuing possession. They immediately fouled to put Jason Burke on the line with only ticks remaining on the clock. Burke sank one of two free-throws before Eric Gray sank a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer for the All-Stars and a final score of Northwestern 80, Northwest Sports All-Stars 78.

Last season, the Wildcats were last in the Big Ten in free-throw percentage, shooting only 60% on the season and losing critical games as a result. Tonight, the Wildcats sank 15 of 17 (88%) from the line to hold on for the three-point victory.

Considering the fact that the Northwest Sports All-Stars were blown out in recent days by Valparasio and future NU opponent IUPUI, it may not seem that the Wildcats have a great deal to celebrate in this final exhibition victory. At the same time, the play of freshman point guard TJ Parker and the clutch free-throw shooting signaled answers to two of the biggest
question marks that Northwestern had coming into the season.

The Wildcats play their first regulation game of the season against Maryland-Eastern Shore Friday, November 22 at 7 p.m. at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
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