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March 1, 2012

Lost amid the loss

EVANSTON-John Shurna's arms were testaments to just how hard Northwestern fought to get back into the game against No. 10 Ohio State on Wednesday night. Shurna's pasty white limbs were covered with fingernail scratches; some long and thin, some short and wide. He had three bright red gouges on his left bicep that looked like a cat had dug into his skin.

The Wildcats scratched and clawed their back from a 13-point deficit with 14:50 left to tie the game with seven seconds remaining. But all of that effort was wiped out when Jared Sullinger hit a bank shot with two ticks left to give the Buckeyes a 75-73 win and Northwestern fans another game to add to the growing list of ones that got away.

"Every close loss is tough, especially when you have a chance to win it down the stretch," said a sullen Drew Crawford, who led Northwestern with 23 points.

Still, after being dominated for the first 20 minutes, Northwestern got the better of the big, bad Buckeyes in the second half, outscoring them 44-36 and outshooting them 57.7 percent to 41.9 percent. Yes, Northwestern was eviscerated on the boards, where Ohio State had a ridiculous 44-18 edge, leading to 20 second-chance points. But those were negated by the Buckeyes' 16 turnovers, which led to 21 points for the Wildcats.

The Wildcats may not have convinced the Selection Committee that they were an tournament team, but you can add Thad Matta to the list of coaches who think they are.

"I would hate on Selection Sunday to see us playing them," he said.

Northwestern's post-game press conferences at Welsh-Ryan Arena have had a Groundhog Day quality to them lately: sullen, shell-shocked players talking to subdued media corps. The whole thing feels as much like a wake as a press conference.

The Wildcats have now been involved in four conference games on their home floor that were decided by two or fewer points. They lost all four of them, by a grand total of seven points.

Three of the four -- against Purdue, Michigan and Ohio State -- would have been seminal wins that could have pushed Northwestern off the bubble and into a bracket. If the Wildcats had won just one of them, their 7-10 conference record would be 8-9 and a win on Saturday against Iowa would pretty much sew up that elusive first tournament bid in school history. If they had split the four games, they would already be a lock.

Instead, the Cats will have to win at least two games in a row, including one in the Big Ten Tournament, to have a shot at dancing. And they are left with yet another game they will look back on with anguish should their name not be called on Selection Sunday in March 10.

In many ways, Sullinger's shot with two seconds left was an eraser that wiped out memories of what would have been some heroic plays should the Wildcats have pulled out a win. This was not a rally built on one big run. Northwestern had to fight for every inch it gained on the Buckeyes.

In the second half, the Wildcats cut the lead to eight, but Ohio State pushed it back out to 13. After they cut the lead to seven, Ohio State pushed it back to 10. After they cut the lead to five, Ohio State pushed it back to 12.

And so it continued, ebb and flow, until Northwestern mounted a 7-0 run to pull to within 73-68 after David Sobolewski's three-pointer with 2:42 left. It was clear at that point that these Wildcats weren't going away.

JerShon Cobb came up big late in the game, calmly hitting two free throws with 46 seconds left to cut the Buckeye advantage to 73-70. Just 30 seconds later, he stole the ball from Deshaun Thomas after a Reggie Hearn miss and called timeout to give Northwestern one last chance to tie it.

That set the stage for what would have been a historic basket if the Wildcats had gone on to win: an epic Alex Marcotullio triple from way beyond the top of the key that tied the game with just seven seconds left and ignited a deafening roar from the sold-out crowd -- as well as BTN play-by-play man Gus Johnson.

That Marcotullio three and the clutch plays before it were forgotten just five seconds later, however, when one botched play cost Northwestern the game. After a timeout, Ohio State inbounded the ball to a streaking Aaron Craft, who pushed the ball passed an overextended Marcotullio and found Sullinger on the baseline. His leaning layup over Cobb was the game-winner, as Shurna's running, half-court heave at the buzzer -- which was dead on but short -- clanged off the front of the rim.

In the final analysis, the Wildcats may have lost this game at the free-throw line, where they made just 8 of 13 shots, while Ohio State hit 11 of its 16. Crawford, who was 9-of-11 from the floor, made just 1-of-5 free throws.

"It was just one of those nights," he said. "You have them once in a while."

Northwestern, it seems, has had one of those nights all too often this season.



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