In what will likely be his final game at Welsh-Ryan Arena, Alex Marcotullio nearly willed Northwestern to victory.
The senior scored a career-high 22 points, including six three-pointers. He left the court with 10 seconds left to a standing ovation, but his team was on the losing end.
“It hurts,” Marcotullio said. “I wanted to go out on top here, and sadly that’s not the case. I left everything out there, and so did Reggie (Hearn) and everyone else.”
The depressing season of NU basketball reached new lows on Thursday. The Wildcats lost their seventh straight game, this one more disappointing than any in recent memory. Penn State capitalized on a strong shooting performance in a 66-59 win to spoil Senior Night.
Reggie Hearn experienced that disappointment when he fouled out with 3:05 remaining. The former walk-on earned the loudest applause of the night.
Hearn’s poor 2-of-8 shooting performance on Thursday did not take away from his incredible season. Hearn endeared himself to the fan base, but could hardly appreciate the cheers after fouling out.
“I was a little pissed off so I didn’t give a whole lot of credence to it,” Hearn said. “I heard it in the back of my head… I'm sure it'll sink in later.”
When Marcotullio exited for the last time, those in attendance could only appreciate his gutsy play. The senior finished his Welsh-Ryan career in memorable fashion. He entered the game shooting just 31 percent from behind the arc on the year. But tonight, the shots fell early and often.
“It was about time something started going in,” Marcotullio said. “I’ve struggled all year.”
There was no better time for it. The Nittany Lions entered the game just 1-15 in conference play. When the teams met on Jan. 10, NU cruised to a 70-54 win — though that included a healthy Jared Swopshire.
Second-year coach Pat Chambers has managed to keep his team focused. Even after the embarrassing 73-44 loss to Minnesota on Saturday, the coach watched his team take control early on. Penn State rolled to an early 12-0 advantage after a flurry of NU turnovers. Their three-quarter court press frustrated the NU backcourt.
“We knew they were going to press,” Bill Carmody said. “We were just careless.”
NU stormed back to take a 28-26 lead, and then headed to the locker room down by four. But a poor start to the second half let Penn State regain momentum. The Cats went more than six minutes without scoring during a stretch that spanned halves.
Marcotullio kept fighting. He knocked down a triple to give the Cats a 54-53 lead with 6:15 remaining. But the Nittany Lions never yielded. They responded with an 8-1 run, capped by a D.J. Newbill midrange dagger with 1:33 left. Instead of celebrating, Carmody was left to praise his classy seniors.
“They played with a passion and wanted to improve,” he said. “Both of them did.”
Carmody tried to joke: “Reggie’s story has been told, about me being dumb and not playing him for two years.”
But no one could escape discussion of Carmody’s job status. He is under fire once again, this time with his team destroyed by injuries. Asked about the situation, he answered honestly.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” he said. “It’s on my mind.”
Hearn and Marcotullio each gave a passionate defense of their coach. They didn’t want to make excuses. But given the injuries, they had no choice.
“Before Swopshire went out, we were 4-6 with a good chance to win at Iowa,” Hearn said.
“I think he deserves high praise for all the circumstances he’s been dealt with,” Marcotullio added. “It’s been a tough job.”
It was hardly what the two seniors dreamed of. Hearn persevered to make his name. Marcotullio closed with a flourish. And here they were, left to defend Carmody. That discussion never goes away.
Northwestern fans and players did their best to give the seniors a fitting tribute. But tonight, there was no closure.