Following two straight heartbreakers, the Wildcats maintained their poise, and took a major step toward an NCAA tournament berth.
"It's a great win," said freshman guard David Sobolewski. "We had two straight hard losses, which was tough on the team, so it was great to see us bounce back the way we did and come out with a big win today."
In the Wildcats' last two games—losses against Illinois and Michigan—they struggled to finish the game, and lost a second-half lead. That was not the case on Saturday. Northwestern took control in the second half, and closed out an essential victory.
"I'm just really happy for our guys," NU head coach Bill Carmody said. "I'm proud of them because we've had two agonizing losses, here against Illlinois and the overtime game against Michigan. We were two possessions from being 3-1 and we're 1-3. We've had a couple good practices and you never know."
Northwestern arguably had its best all-around performance in the win. The Wildcats were led by John Shurna's 22 points, while Drew Crawford had 20 points, including 10 crucial free throws. However, NU received its biggest boost from senior center Davide Curletti.
Curletti played a career-most 36 minutes, and contributed with 17 points and six rebounds during his first start of the season. Curletti caught fire early, finishing with a game-high 13 first-half points. Most importantly, he helped neutralize Michigan State's Draymond Green in the paint.
"Give Curletti credit, I thought he played extremely well against our centers and that's something we've been really solid with," said Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo after the game.
Northwestern struggled to contain Michigan State's high-octane offense in the first half. The Spartans hit on 10 of their first 11 field goals, looked impossible to stop. The Wildcats would battle back in the final minutes of the first half.
With second ticking away in the first half, Northwestern would get momentum of the game. Trailing by a point, John Shurna hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer from well past the line, giving his team a halftime lead. NU would never look back.
Northwestern faced many misfortunes during its recent skid, but that was not the case on Saturday. NU extended its lead into double-digits at the midway point of the second half.
The Wildcats picked up a major break at the 9:15 mark of the second half. John Shurna was rushed by an expiring shot clock, so he threw up an off-balanced three-pointer. The ball hit off the front of the rim, and went into the hands of Reggie Hearn, who tipped in a layup.
Moments later, Draymond Green looked to bring the Spartans back with a key three-pointer—one of three on the day—but the Wildcats answered on a John Shurna slam dunk.
Michigan State would cut the Wildcats' lead down to five points, with just under five minutes remaining, but NU would answer again. Dave Sobolewski hit two crucial free throws, then on the next possession, John Shurna hit a three-pointer, giving Northwestern a 10-point lead. That would serve as the proverbial dagger.
Wildcat fans would rush the court as time ticked off the clock, as they celebrated a monumental win for a season filled with hope.
"It was great, it was a really fun experience," said Sobolewski of the postgame celebration. "It was fun to share with the guys in the locker room. At the same time, hopefully, it's one of many. We've got a long way to go still, a lot of big games coming up in the future, so we're already looking forward to the opportunity."
Northwestern's difficult stretch of Big Ten games continues on Wednesday, when it travels to Madison to meet with Wisconsin. After that, the Wildcats travel to Minneapolis to meet with the Golden Gophers at Williams Arena.
After a jubilating victory, the Wildcats will surely enjoy the celebration, but not for too long.
"We'll enjoy tonight, and even tomorrow," said Sobolewski," But once Monday comes around, it's all about Wisconsin."
• Northwestern finished the game hitting on 50 percent of its field goals—the second consecutive game which that has happened.
• Drew Crawford was not at 100-percent health during the win. He missed Friday's practice with the flu, then was forced to take an IV prior to the game. He credited the training staff for getting him prepared, but added, "I saw Davide working so hard, and I saw all my teammates working so hard. It kind of fuels you."
• Northwestern was without Jershon Cobb for the second straight game, as he battles a hip injury. Alex Marcotullio did play in the first half, hitting six points, but left the game with a head injury. His status appears uncertain going forward.
• Reggie Hearn gave the Wildcats a big boost, finishing the game with 10 points and five rebounds in 29 minutes of play.
• Tom Izzo said of Northwestern's effort: "It's a good basketball team and we didn't play consistently good enough to beat those guys."