IOWA CITY, Iowa -- First, it was Alex Olah. Northwestern’s freshman center lay on the ground, clutching his head after loose-ball contact while play took off in the other direction. He headed to the locker room shortly after and wouldn’t return.
Then, it was Jared Swopshire. The senior skied to the rim and met Iowa’s Gabriel Olaseni at full force. He landed underneath the basket and sat up in pain, surrounded by concerned teammates. He was helped off the court, unable to put weight on his right leg.
Within five fateful second-half minutes, the two crucial Wildcats suffered game-ending injuries. After Olah’s exit, less than two minutes in, an inexperienced bench struggled to carry the starters’ weight. Still, Iowa led just 39-34 when Swopshire’s exit magnified the problem. The Hawkeyes took full advantage, going on to win 71-57 in yet another tough break for Northwestern.
“One is seven feet, the other is 6-foot-7, they’re our two leading rebounders,” said Northwestern's Bill Carmody of his team's two injured players. “They started hitting the backboards and getting offensive rebounds. The game wasn’t lost because of [injuries], but it certainly opened up a lot sooner than maybe it would have.”
Northwestern had controlled the glass the entire first half, leading their opponents 19-13 in rebounding. Olah and Swopshire keyed that movement, combining for 11 of those boards, actively working and tipping loose balls out to their guards.
Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery’s team quickly swooped on the Wildcats, with a suddenly much taller front line able to impose its will. Carmody was forced into a combination of freshmen Kale Abrahamson and Mike Turner and little-used Nikola Cerina at the two vacant spots. The Hawkeyes controlled things accordingly.
“We got some second shots when we needed them,” said McCaffery. “The rebounding numbers shifted. We had some issues on the other end with dribble handoff stuff, their drivers and three-point shooters, but overall I think it benefited us.”
With the loss Northwestern falls to 13-11, [4-7 Big Ten] and the going doesn’t get any easier. Carmody will prepare his team to face tenth-ranked Ohio State Thursday in Columbus. After the game he admitted Olah “looked out of it” with a possible concussion, and Swopshire needed help walking to the bus, his right leg injury likely either a knee or ankle.
Odds are, Carmody will likely be game planning without his starting big men. But make no mistake: the Wildcats have no time to feel sorry for themselves.
“If both Swop and Olah are ready to go, we’ll be ready,” said senior Reggie Hearn. “If not, we’ll have to get some of the new guys in there and just keep plugging—that’s all you can do at this point in the season. A lot of people have injuries and guys just have to step up.”
In a difficult postgame moment, Swopshire was walked off the court by his teammates and training staff. Drew Crawford, out for the season himself, came back out of the locker room to check on his fellow senior, a concerned look on his face.
This year is certainly Swopshire’s last, as a transfer already playing on borrowed time. Regardless of injury, unlike Crawford he won’t have the chance for a medical redshirt. As he hobbled into the tunnel, unable to put weight on his leg, his future was shrouded with doubt.
“It’s tough seeing those guys down, but at the same time you want to play for them,” said senior Alex Marcotullio. “You know they’d be dying to be out there with you. You have to put that in the back of your mind, and say do this for Swop and Al.”
And for as long as Olah and Swopshire are missing, Northwestern will have to do just that.
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