In a game many felt the 'Cats (20-9, 9-7 B1G) absolutely needed to win, Northwestern came about as close to winning at Indiana (16-13, 6-10 B1G) as they possibly could without, you know, winning. A Thomas Bryant free throw at the tail-end of an old-fashioned three-point play with 2.6 seconds left gave the Hoosiers a 63-62 edge they would hold until the buzzer sounded moments later. How the game reached that stage is almost too wild for words, but I'll try.
After a back-and-forth start, Northwestern started asserting its will with help from a suddenly active and dominant Scottie Lindsey. Lindsey scored nine of his 13 points in the first half, four of which coming on steals that led to breakaway dunks. The 'Cats' leading scorer looked to be back to his old self, and all was right with the world. Until Vic Law threw down a dunk with 5:30 left in the half to give NU a commanding 26-14 lead. Then the wheels came off.
What followed can be generously described as the worst ending of a half of basketball Northwestern had experienced this year ... at that point (the second half made a very, very strong case for this title later on). Indiana pulled off a 22-0 run, turning a 12-point deficit into a 10-point (36-26) halftime lead. Oh, and the last bucket? A three-quarter court heave by Devonte Green that banked in. It was absurd.
What was possibly more absurd was how calmly Northwestern regained control after halftime. The 'Cats started the second half on a 17-4 tear, grabbing the lead right back. They stretched that lead to as wide as eight as the half wore down, and never really appeared to waver. With 1:33 left, Bryant McIntosh, who scored 22 in a homecoming of sorts, sunk a free throw to give NU what looked like an airtight 62-55 lead. Little did anybody know, that was the last time we'd see NU score that evening.
Layup, three-pointer, dunk. That's all it took. NU sprinkled a missed three-pointer and a missed layup between two of those. With the clock winding down and the Hoosiers down 62-60, James Blackmon Jr took the ball down the court and dumped it to Bryant, who was waiting under the basket. Nathan Taphorn tried to contest the dunk without fouling, but Lindsey got a piece of Bryant's head as the Indiana big man went up, drawing a whistle as he slammed it down with 2.6 remaining.
He made the free throw and gave Indiana the lead, and then the game. McIntosh chucked up a half-court prayer at the final buzzer that hit the rim and was tantalizingly close to bailing out Northwestern, but the truth of the matter is, it never should've come down to that. Outside of about seven minutes of game time, NU outscored Indiana 62-33. But in those seven minutes, Indiana outscored NU 30-0. More importantly, Indiana executed when it needed to. Northwestern, in seven critical minutes, did not.
To be blunt, this makes things rather difficult. NU is falling apart at the worst possible time, and has two very tough tests (albeit both coming at home) in Michigan and Purdue this week. Some analysts have said NU could lose out and still sneak into the Big Dance with 20 regular season wins, and given the weak state of the Big Ten and the NCAA Tournament bubble, that's not ridiculous at all. But losses to Michigan, Purdue and whoever awaits NU in the first round of the conference tournament? That might spell an NIT bid.
On one hand, it is extremely exciting that Northwestern's season became "NCAA Tournament or bust." On the other hand, this is Northwestern sports we're talking about. It was never going to be as easy as it seemed it would be the last time NU and Indiana squared off at the end of January. As March looms, NU's future is uncertain. But as nerve-wracking as that is, Northwestern fans should know by now that they can't have it any other way.
NU still very much has a chance to make history. All that can be done now is wait until the next opportunity – Wednesday at 6 p.m., when the red-hot Michigan Wolverines roll into Welsh-Ryan Arena.