It was a beautiful day in Bloomington, Ind., with temperatures in the 50s and a springtime feel in the air. The Northwestern Wildcats arrived at Assembly Hall carrying a heavy load on their collective backs: no 'Cats team had won at IU's current gym, ever. Their losing streak in Bloomington stretched back to before the Hall was even built!
Tipoff was at 6:30, and for the second time this season I took advantage of the fantastic five dollar upper-level ticket offer to go see the Baby Hoosiers play. The last time I went, IU hung on to defeat Iowa 68-61. This time, I was hoping for a different result.
You see, I grew up in Evanston, and Northwestern is my first love. But I've lived in Bloomington for seven years now, and have followed Indiana through thick and thin. These two athletic programs have really struggled throughout the years, but each has had bright moments that keep hope alive.
For Northwestern, it's a never-ending battle just to stay afloat in the cutthroat Big Ten. IU, on the other hand, is a traditional powerhouse (the nine banners hanging in Assembly Hall testify to Hoosier dominance under Bob Knight and others), but one that has gone through an insane amount of turmoil over recent years.
Mike Davis gave way to Kelvin Sampson and his Darth Maul-like protege Eric Gordon. Sampson left town in the wake of his self-generated recruiting scandal, and now Tom Crean has arrived to pick up the pieces.
The Wildcats were 14-11 (5-9) going into tonight. The Hoosiers were 6-20, with a lone Big Ten win. Mismatch? On paper, definitely.
But between the Assembly Hall hex and the two teams' first game of the season, a 79-77 nailbiter at Welsh-Ryan in Evanston, there was ample reason to believe that this could be a good one.
Indiana jumped out to an early lead behind senior forward Kyle Taber, the longtime hustle guy for the Hoosiers and one of just two holdovers from the Sampson years.
The young IU squad actually held a lead until the seven-minute mark of the first half, when Northwestern began to settle down and run their signature Princeton offense and 1-3-1 defense effectively.
One of the best moments of the game is pictured at the top of this article. Midway through the first, NU popped the ball loose from Verdell Jones III (who finished with seven turnovers to six assists).
In the ensuing scrum, the rock bounced from Hoosier to Wildcat, and back, and forth, for a solid five seconds before finally rattling out of bounds as the Assembly Hall faithful, who are known for their love of hustle plays, cheered wildly and bodies hit the hardwood. I guess you had to be there. The ovation died down as the refs called it Northwestern ball out of bounds.
At the half, the Wildcats had established a 30-25 lead behind veteran guards Craig Moore and Michael Thompson. Thompson, who has had some rough moments this season, was really impressive tonight, finishing with sixteen points and five assists.
As the second period began, IU hung tough, staying neck-and-neck with the more experienced 'Cats. Nick Williams was impressive during this run, as was Taber, who was the Hoosiers' leading scorer with 12 points.
Side note: This is the first time I can ever remember seeing No. 44 at the top of the box score! It was good to see him play well, even in a losing effort.
But Northwestern was just too much for the inexperienced Hoosiers. After a sweet backdoor cut from walk-on Daniel Moore brought the score to within two at 41-39, the seasoned Wildcats methodically pulled away.
Defensive ace Jeremy Nash buried a trey to start the rout, and Craig Moore finished the job. He ended up hitting up 5-of-7 from beyond the arc and racked up 17 points in a very impressive performance.
Verdell Jones is (I thought) a good defender, but Moore made him and the rest of the IU freshmen look bad as he knocked down long ball after long ball.
In the end, it wasn't even close. Northwestern got its first win at their former House of Horrors by a wide 75-53 margin.
Afterward, Tom Crean spoke about his young team's struggles, and Bill Carmody tried to tell the media that he hadn't even known about his team's past frustration in Bloomington.
Even though Indiana is young and inexperienced, this was a good win for the Wildcats. Any victory on the road in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten is one to be celebrated.
NU now has 15 wins on the season, with a home game against cellar-dwelling Iowa (4-11 in conference) next on the schedule.
Although the 'Cats lost in Iowa City, I expect home-court advantage to come into play here. Iowa doesn't have the graduate base in Chicago that so many other Big Ten teams enjoy.
Against an Illinois or Wisconsin, the stands at Welsh-Ryan are evenly divided between fans of the home and away squads, leading to more of a neutral court feel.
Hopefully, the Northwestern kids will show up in force for this game. The Wildcats need the win to solidify their NIT status and keep their Big Dance dream alive.
As for the Hoosiers, all I can say is that Tom Crean is a good coach, and this team will not quit. Indiana activated one of their student managers for this game (Mike Santa, step on up!) and Crean says he wants to add another of his practice-squad guys to the roster soon.
IU's young talent will continue to develop and hopefully play hard. I wonder what the Vegas odds are on Indiana shocking the world and winning the Big Ten Tourney in Indy! Hey, I can dream, right?
Go Wildcats, go Hoosiers. Thanks for a well-played game.
(AP photo from ESPN.com, link provided)