The Northwestern Wildcats are now included with Duke and North Carolina in rather exclusive company.
After a surprising 81-74 win over No. 7 Michigan State in Evanston on Saturday afternoon, Northwestern joins Duke and UNC as the only teams to have beaten the Spartans this year.
The Wildcats dealt Michigan State their first loss in Big Ten play, and ended a 15-game winning streak that dated back to November 15.
Going in, it seemed as though Michigan State would be able to maintain its spot at the top of the Big Ten with another win.
The Spartans won by 15 over Indiana in their Big Ten opener. They also pulled out a gutsy overtime win at Wisconsin. Despite the Badgers' recent struggles, that is always an extremely difficult place to win basketball games.
The matchup against Northwestern would not stack up to those two in terms of the challenge the Spartans would face.
However, as we’ve already seen plenty of times in just the first two weeks of conference play, road games against conference foes are never easy, regardless of record or recent performance.
More importantly, Northwestern came into this game with a sense of urgency after missing out on a chance for a key win earlier this week.
Northwestern let one get away this past Wednesday at No. 13 Michigan, losing 66-64 in overtime. The Wildcats had control of the game early in the second half, leading by as many as 10.
However, they began to crumble under the pressure—both of the situation and the Michigan defense—and gave the Wolverines the chance to win a game they probably should not have.
Playing back at home on Saturday was a different story for Northwestern.
After a small early deficit, the Wildcats pulled ahead by two at the half thanks to a late three by John Shurna. Then, five minutes into the second half—at about the same point in the game where they began to fold against Michigan—the Wildcats made their move.
Reggie Hearn had back-to-back baskets to spark a 16-6 Northwestern run, capped off by a Shurna dunk that put them ahead by 12 with nine minutes to play.
At that point, the game was still well in doubt, but the possibility of a Wildcat upset was also very real.
Michigan State did make one brief push, cutting the lead to four with about five minutes to play, but ultimately got no closer. Unlike the Michigan game, Northwestern did an excellent job of protecting the basketball against the Spartans’ man pressure.
The Wildcats also continued to attack the basket after getting the Spartan big men away from the interior. That led to repeated trips to the foul line, which helped preserve the huge win for Northwestern.
The unsung hero for Northwestern in this one was Davide Curletti.
The senior forward saw a career-high 36 minutes on the floor, mostly in place of starting center Luka Mirkovic. Curletti made a huge impact on the offensive end, consistently rolling to the basket after bringing Spartan defenders away from the middle. His 17 points—also a career-high—gave the Wildcats an additional scoring dimension not really seen thus far this season.
This win did two things for Northwestern.
One, it gave them a signature win over a team who should challenge for the Big Ten title and likely wind up back in the nation’s top 10.
Two, it puts the Wildcats in a bit less dire situation than they would have faced had they lost.
At just 1-3 in the Big Ten coming into the weekend, a Wildcat loss would have meant being 1-4 with a road trip to Wisconsin and Minnesota coming up this week. Winning in Madison is always tough, and Minnesota may be poised to turn things around after winning at Indiana on Thursday.
Losing both of those games—a very real possibility—might have completely erased any hopes of a possible NCAA Tournament bid this season.
While they still have plenty of work to do, the Wildcats have now gained some crucial confidence that comes from beating a top-10 team. They will need to call on that confidence at least a few more times this season in order to beat teams like Purdue, Illinois and Michigan.
Northwestern ultimately will need a couple of wins over teams like those in order to make the NCAA Tournament.