20 February 2012

NORTHWESTERN 64 Minnesota 53 (F)

Johnny Shurna scored 18 points to break Billy McKinney's career scoring record and help position Northwestern (16-10,6-8) for an NCAAs at large berth with a critical win over fellow bubblemate Minnesota (17-10,5-9).  Surprisingly there was more suspense over whether Shurna would score the 17+ points needed to break the record than if NU would win this pivotal toss-up game. Johnny was held scoreless until 4 minutes remained in the first half while Minnesota held the lead for just one possession early in the first half.

For his first points John anticipated a cross court pass out of the 1-3-1 and converted the steal into a momentum building throwdown dunk.  Once the seal was broken Shurna poured in the points fast and furiously.  Johnny was the trigger man for each of the five remaining NU first half possessions with the following results: made 3FG, made layup, made 3FG, missed jumper, made layup.  This one man scoring tear extended NU's lead from 24-21 to 36-25.  So dominating was the performance that not even a potential momentum stealing Julian Welch bomb at the horn could temper the buzzing about the Welsh.

Minnesota would get no closer than 7 points in the second half.  The second and last time that Minnesota closed the gap to a touchdown it was Shurna with the answer -- a 3 point bomb that rattled home and visibly rattled Minnesota as the crowd roared out in celebration of what it had been eagerly awaiting -- points 1900, 1901, and 1902 of Shurna's career and the record.  Rodney Williams, bless his heart, was thoughtful enough to throw the ball away on Minnesota's next possession for the under 12 media timeout so that the Welsh announcer could officially commemorate the festive occasion and give the fans the unambiguous opportunity to shower Johnny with the love he so richly deserves.

From the 10,000 foot view we see that this was just the second B1G game (at Michigan) in which NU's offense AND defense played above an average B1G level.  On a combined basis NU performed 0.11 points per possession better than an average B1G team; only the victories over Michigan State and Iowa were better overall performances.  The game also marked the sixth consecutive game that NU's offense performed at an above average level.

Individually Shurna's points have already been glorified, but it was his all-around effort that impressed us the most.  He had a stat sheet stuffing 6 rebounds, 5 blocks, 5 assists, 3 steals and no turnovers -- an A+++ game on a historic night.  This game recap would be incomplete if we did not mention that Dave Sobolewski had a very good game.  The freshman point guard scored a game high 22 points including 4-5 shooting from distance and did not have a turnover.  Drew Crawford scored 11 points and did most of his damage early on before the Shurna train got moving.  JerShon Cobb got the start and provided defensive mojo that has been missing most of the season to the tune of 5 steals in just 24 minutes of play.

Next up is a Michigan (20-7,10-4) team that rolls into Evanston for a 7pm tip on Tuesday with a ton of momentum.  Just hours after NU completed its big victory over Minnesota the Wolverines took down the mighty Ohio State Buckeyes up in Ann Arbor.  Michigan is riding a 3 game winning streak and is just one game down in the loss column to Michigan State in the B1G standings.  The Wolverines can practically taste a B1G championship, and there is no chance that they will overlook NU since this will be their toughest remaining game on paper.

Most observers agree that a 9-9 B1G record would make NU a lock for the NCAAs while 8-10 would put NU on the bubble and likely needing a win at the B1G Tourney.  Hence NU can afford one or two losses over the final four games of the regular season.  Per kenpom.com the remaining games ranked in descending order from hardest to easiest are: OSU, Michigan, at Iowa, at PSU.  As the "easiest" of the two home games but with Michigan coming in ranked the stakes are high for this game.  However it is not "do or die" time so let's keep it in perspective and enjoy being in the thick of the NCAAs discussion.